Headspace XR made me forget how much I hate meditation tech

Render of the Headspace XR app
I’m the most shocked that I enjoyed the app. | Image: Headspace, Meta

I am not a chill person, but I would like to be. It’s why I keep trying various meditation tech, breathing in and out as abstract graphics or disembodied voices guide me to a higher state of being. Or that’s what would happen if most meditation tech worked for me. So trust me when I say I expected nothing from Headspace XR.

When the pandemic struck, meditation and mindfulness apps like Headspace were everywhere. Totally makes sense. Yet meditating in VR? It sounds ridiculous. Why would I breathe in a headset when I could just… not. But you never know! Things could surprise you! That’s why I, the meditation skeptic, agreed to try a demo of Headspace XR. Walking into Meta’s New York office, I thought I’d stick on the headset and nod politely while strangers mulled around watching me wear a Quest 3 and breathe deeply. Technically, that is what happened, but I was surprised that I actually enjoyed what I was seeing inside the headset.

Headspace XR is what you’d get if you took the Headspace app and turned it into a virtual playground. You walk around as an abstract, gender neutral avatar and there are different locations you can go to and… play. There’s a bunch of “fountains” where you pick up colorful orbs and throw them at walls — or breathe and inhale the colors into your avatar. There’s a place called the Energy Dome where you go and wave your arms around while tracing shapes. The best I can describe it is if Beat Saber and tai chi had a baby. I’m sure I looked goofy from the outside, but inside the Energy Dome I was having a good time.

gif of abstract arm waving at a shape.
GIF: Meta
It’s kind of like gamifying tai chi.

You can also pull up a little map to view all the areas within this mental health playground. A giant mood stream, where six balloons with faces representing various emotions await you. Touching one will tailor the experience to whether you’re feeling happy, sad, bored, anxious, angry, or lonely. There’s a mural with slingshots lined up in front of it that you fling virtual balls of paint at that eventually uncover a message. (At my demo, it was “Be present.”)

There’s actually a lot of slingshots. At one point, we were encouraged to just fling balls through giant shapes in the sky — breathing in when you pull back and exhaling when you let ’er rip. You can also invite friends to come hang out with you in various “public” spaces and club houses. The most traditional experience I tried was visiting the Boxy Treehouse. It’s a virtual tree house at sunset where you can see a visualization of box breathing, a deep breathing technique to calm the nervous system.

The whole thing felt like a pill pocket for meditation. But instead of hiding medicine in a treat for your pets, you’re learning meditation skills through playing games. That’s by design.

view of Mood stream, six balloons with faces on them representing different emotions
Image: Meta
Headspace XR is built like a virtual playground for meditation and mindfulness.

“There are five pillars of mindfulness that we talked about specifically at Headspace. There’s meditate, move, eat, sleep, and play. Play, to me, is something that we could really, really access in the world of VR, that was tough to access in the world of 2D,” says Sara Cohen, vice president of content creation at Headspace.

Another feature launching in Headspace XR is more mixed reality experiences. I didn’t get to try this during the demo, but I was told that they’re designed to let you interact with your actual surroundings. For example, one lets you draw a window in your room and a guided visualization lets you see positive energy bubbles fly through that window and into your space.

Box breathing visual overlaid over a real fireplace mantle
GIF: Meta
There are a few mixed reality experiences in Headspace XR, too. This one also visualizes box breathing.

“The idea is to bring the practice into your everyday life. Because it’s not so much about techniques and exercises. Mindfulness is really a lifestyle,” says Kessonga Giscombe, one of Headspace’s mindfulness and meditation teachers. “It’s the same thing with the XR experience.”

That’s a good sentiment, though I’m still skeptical about meditating in VR overall. Last week, I tried the Mindfulness app in the Apple Vision Pro and that typical “Look at these shapes and breathe gratefully” experience never resonated with me. So as a meditation skeptic, there’s something to Headspace XR’s approach that feels fresh. I would try it again. That’s even though a part of me knows I’m being fed something good in the guise of a game. But if it’s good for me, and I enjoy it, does it really matter how I get there?