UX idea: Meditation Ball

Meditation is an extremely current practice and I get routinely drawn to it. This project explores meditation through the HCI framework of Embodied Cognition. Leveraging studies and research on the field and basing design decisions on the Eight-factor model we explore how technology can support and augment mindfulness practices. A foam ball is used as the base for the prototype. An Arduino board is then used in conjunction to Peltier actuators (heat pumps) to gracefully nudge the user to focus on the physical sensation in its hands. Hot and cold sensations are produced rhythmically to guide the user.

Happy meditation!


read below for more in-depth information

In this project we investigate how technology can be leveraged to practice and encourage mindfulness. We explore what it means to be mindful, what the benefits of mindfulness are, and how technology can be used to promote this behavior. We then propose a design, along with a prototype, of a serious game that promotes mindfulness through manipulation and play with a heated ball. Finally, we explore how mindfulness can be quantified and measured, and how we could test the effectiveness of the proposed solution.

We began this project by conducting an exploration of the current state of the art of mindfulness and gaming technology. To guide our inquiry we investigate the following research question: ​How can gaming be leveraged to practice and encourage mindfulness practice​? This allowed us to explore mindfulness and technology from several angles. First, we began answering this question through exploring the varied definitions of mindfulness, and crystalizing a clearer definition for our use as we developed our prototype ball-game. Armed with a concrete definition, we turned to how mindfulness has been used as a design goal in existing games and other technologies. This also led us to games where mindfulness may not have been the primary concern, yet where aspects of mindfulness are nonetheless practiced as part of playing the game. Finally, we explored how mindfulness can be quantified and measured in a meaningful way.

What is Mindfulness?

Our research question first required us to answer this basic question, to define what mindfulness is. Beginning with the very basics, the idea of mindfulness is greatly rooted in the traditions of Buddhism: “The Way of Mindfulness is the heart of training and developing the mind for its daily tasks, as well as deliverance from personal suffering.”​ Based on its origins in this tradition, mindfulness is the core activity of a system developed to lead to a cessation of personal suffering. However, this historical definition only gives us a clear explanation of what mindfulness aims to achieve, and falls short of describing what mindfulness as an activity entails. Turning from Buddhism to clinical psychology, two definitions have been outlined in the literature. The first great effort to define mindfulness came in 2004, when a group of psychologists gathered to create a definition to capture a new trend towards “mindfulness” at the time​ . They proposed a two-part definition:

  • Self-regulation of attention​: The first step of mindfulness involves bringing attention to current experiences. Attention can be acutely focused on the here and now, by observing and attending to the changing field of the mind – thoughts, feelings and sensations. Part of this is also inhibiting the processing of thoughts, which is to say letting thoughts pass, with no judgement or analysis… which brings us to the second part, the orientation to experience
  • Curiosity, Openness and Acceptance​: Mindfulness entails curating a specific state of mind where thoughts come and are approached with curiosity and openness rather than judgement, a state of acceptance is achieved rather than an explicit, thoughtful state of relaxation.

A second definition from the literature expands upon the two-part definition in what is likely the most important paper in mindfulness technology​ . The S-ART definition stands for self-awareness, self-regulation and self-transcendence. Awareness corresponds to curiosity, openness and acceptance. Regulation comes directly from the two-part model. Transcendence expands the older definition, and like the Buddhist definition above, aims to capture the potential and power of mindfulness.

In conclusion of this definition, what is the potential or power of mindfulness? It has been shown to “reduce cognitive vulnerability to stress”​ . This has been demonstrated through​ various “mindfulness-based interventions” (or MBIs)​ , which have also been shown to reduce “psychological morbidity.”​ Finally, in an EEG study comparing concentration and mindfulness meditation with relaxation, brain scans demonstrated that meditation is a measurably unique form of consciousness, not merely a degree of relaxation.​

Quantifying Mindfulness

Measuring mindfulness is well-discussed in literature, especially in psychological research. The quantification of the construct of mindfulness has generated at least eight self-rating questionnaires in the last decade that have been validated through literature. The common rationale seems to define and quantify the central focus of mindful meditation, but all scales differ in the scales of which they are measured. Some examples of reviewed mindfulness scales include: (1) Mindfulness Attention Awareness Attention Scale (MAAS), which focuses on the absence of attention to and awareness of present experience, (2) Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills (KIMS), which goes into four subscales of Observe, Describe, Act with Awareness, and Accept without Judgement, (3) Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory (FMI), which is guided by Buddhist psychology and targeted for audience with some knowledge of meditation.​

Although there have been many contributions, there are serious conceptual difficulties and differences on a common understanding of what mindfulness is among experts. Is mindfulness a state, trait, somewhere in between, or neither? In addition, many of these scales can lead to potential discrepancy between how mindful individuals believe themselves to be on these self-ratings versus how mindful they really are.

Interactive Mindful Technologies

We base our research on mindful technologies on recent works that try to unify and review mindful experiences in the literature (see Sliwinski, J., et al. 2015; and Sliwinski, J., Katsikitis, M., & Jones, C. M. 2017). With reviewing such technologies and different approaches the authors of the aforementioned papers managed to synthesize a model to describe and build such technologies: the Eight-Factor model. This model delineates eight factors that need to be partly or fully included to create a mindful experience.

  1. Awareness towards inner experiences​: also known as “Body-awareness”, it is drawing on the ability of directing one’s attention to a specific body part
  2. Awareness towards outer experiences​: consists in having a clear perception and experience of external stimuli
  3. Openness to experience:​ it is a non-avoidant attitude towards experiences characterized by openness and curiosity
  4. Decentering​: Not trying to control an emotion and engage in cognition
  5. Acceptance​: Encounter of experiences with an accepting attitude and without judgement. A self-compassionate orientation towards one self
  6. Relativity of thoughts and beliefs​: Recognition that thoughts and beliefs do not possess universal truth but are completely subjective and might not always correspond to reality
  7. Insightful understanding​: Seeing through the link between evaluation and perception makes it easier to spot negative cognitions that might cause catastrophic interpretation of situations
  8. Acting with awareness​: Having the mental focus stays in the moment and not wander away to reflections about the past or predictions about the future, thus being fully conscious of the here and now

Many examples per each factor are included in the literature studied and presented in the previous literature review work. We decide to use these factors to lay the groundwork of following design choices and give us the inspiration for possible interactions.

Motivated Design

Based on our findings from the literature, as well as the examples of mindfulness technology we examined, we propose a meditation ball as a new tool that supports mindfulness meditation processes through various interactions. Borrowing from the existing metaphor of meditation balls – Chinese meditation balls or western stress balls – we created a mindfulness exercise ball that guides users towards a mental state of focus on the present moment. In short, the design we propose is a meditation ball that has two different areas that can warm up at different moments as the user holds the ball between its hand.

Our design consists of a ball that the user would hold and sense using its hands. We exploit the tactile sensory system and its deep connection with the sense of self​ . This particular property relates with two factors of the Eight-factor model, from now on EFM: awareness towards inner experiences and insightful understanding. Also the hand sensory system is the one of the main sensory input as per Penfield et al,​ and we want to capitalize on this, by trying to communicate focus to the user with the main input system. We want to leverage the ECM factors decentering and awareness towards outer experiences by providing external feedback that calls your attention back to the meditation practice. Studies show that hands warm up regularly during self-regulation​ (methods similar to mindfulness practices), so we hope to initiate an opposite and complementary feedback loop, that is by providing warmth to the hand we can initiate the same mental mechanism during self-regulation.

Localized warmth also has been found to provide slight discomfort when concentrated to the hand​ , that way the user can be fully aware of it while also providing a nice contrast with cold and warm impulses, generated by playing with the actuator. Also focusing on the game side, reward systems are an essential part of guiding guide gameplay. We explore this with our design through using the sensation of heat on the hands to hopefully create a gentle reward system. Using the heightened perception of the fingers, the warmth is primarily a way to encourage mindfulness and focus on the present, but also acts as a reward. The warmth would variate periodically between the two poles of the ball to provide a certain uncertainty from the user side and promote acceptance (EFM). The way the heat moves in the ball follows a very clear rhythm, which has been shown to help learning. Beyond that, the ​rhythmic nature of the heat relates to the users breath

In future versions of this project, we would like to explore and expand the ball concept towards movement and learning. Movement is essential to learning and so the form of a ball guides the users to move with it. This will put the users into a place of embodied cognition to learn meditative strategies more successfully (e.g. yoga, where repetitive movements becomes a vessel to achieve mindfulness).

While the current prototype is entirely independent of sensors (as it has no sensing capabilities), we envision adding a tracking system to the ball to track its orientation and multiple heat actuators to allow the heat to respond to the users movements. This would let us explore users’ movement in three dimensions but also on the ball surface, by facilitating a sense of exploration, by for example following the heat. Related to this is the idea about the cognitive load of movement. For this reason, the movements we envision are very simple, use only a small cognitive load to guide the user to focus on their mind. In future versions of this ball, we could conceive of having sensors to track the users vitals to modulate the heat periods.

Scenario

The meditation ball we have created is to be explored with no definite or correct way to use it. We hope to help the user achieve a mindful state from by emphasizing on bodily sensations with our therapeutic technique. This meditation ball can be used in virtually any setting, but would most likely be seen in places of high stress (ex. an office) or low stress (ex. one’s home), where current meditation tools tend to be found.

For our prototype, we took a foam toy ball so that we were able to cut out pieces inside. We built a circuit that controls two Peltier units (heating/cooling elements generally used to cool computer chips), which are in turn controlled by an Arduino. The two Peltiers are attached on opposite sides of the surface of the ball, while all the electronics are hidden inside. A user places two hands on the ball, on top of the two plastic Peltier panels. When the ball is turned on the two Peltiers gently get warm and then cold, one and then the other, which creates the sensation that the heat is moving back and forth through the ball.

As previously mentioned, the most common way to track results of mindfulness practice is to use a standardized self-report questionnaire. In our study, we would like to implement the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) created by Baer, Smith, Hopkins, Krietemeyer and Toney in 2006. We chose this scale because it integrates significant aspects of five other popular mindfulness scales: Mindfulness Awareness Attention Scale (MAAS), Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory (FMI), Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills (KIMS), Cognitive Affective Mindfulness Scale, and Mindfulness Questionnaire (MQ).​ In fact, FFMQ was developed through factor analyses of the combined pool of items from the mindfulness questionnaires; FFMQ took these facets from the other questionnaires and focuses on observation, description, awareness actions, non-judgemental inner experience, and non-reactivity.​ The scale is 24 questions long and each question is to be answered from a Likert scale of 1 to 5 (never, rarely true, sometimes true, often true, always true). Some questions include: “While walking, I am aware of the sensations in my body.”, “I find it difficult to sustain focus.”, “I sometimes feel that I am not in complete awareness of myself.” Typically, subjects would take this questionnaire before and after some mindfulness intervention such as a meditation retreat. Accordingly, we would have our subjects complete the same questionnaire before and after a set period of time of using the ball. Furthermore, we can judge the performance of our ball if the scores should correlate with the amount and quality of mindfulness practice done by subjects. To explain it another way, the more someone uses the meditation ball with the intent of mindfulness, the higher their score should be from FFMQ. We feel that if we were to actively and physically examine participants that it would hinder their process towards meditation and mindfulness; therefore, we would have the participant record their own use time, frequency, and thought processes within three months in a diary. Overall, we feel that the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire provides a meaningful estimate of how aware the respondent is at the moment.

As was mentioned briefly in the introduction, EEGs have potential for measuring mindfulness, and this would be perhaps the best way to accurately study our ball. We could envision combining our experiment and questionnaire with EEG scans to enhance the evaluation capabilities of the experiment. However, the existing literature in this area has only compared meditation with relaxation.​ And while they did find distinctly different patterns for each state, it remains a challenge to actually track levels of mindfulness and meditation.

Published by Daniele Spaccapeli

I'm a computer science major who loves entrepreneurship and UX design.

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