A Breathing Peripheral for Virtual Reality

There isn't a good way to get respiration data into Virtual Reality and millions can benefit from immersive breathing training. Use cases include PTSD/chronic pain/anxiety treatment, smoking cessation, meditation training and user analytics.

100's of millions of people face chronic anxiety, PTSD, chronic pain and other ailments that can benefit from breath training.  It's one of the only physiological processes that can run automatically and be controlled consciously. This allows it to become a gateway for controlling your physiological and emotional state.

Breathing sensor mounted on Oculus Rift HMD

Breathing sensor mounted on Oculus Rift HMD

However, many people have problems focusing on and modifying their breath. Which begs the question, how can breath sensing and virtual reality combine to help people feel better?

What if breathing training could be as simple as navigating a virtual world, moving a ball around a beautiful beach, breathing fire like a dragon or just sitting and watching your breath in a fun way? 



Since the beginning of JunoVR, I've been inspired by how real time respiration feedback could be integrated with a visual experience. Microphone based breathing detection was too susceptible to environmental noise, belt stretch sensors take a lot of time to set up, require calibration and don't correlate that well with actual airflow.

This led to experimenting with building a breathing sensor for virtual reality that would be both quick to set up and highly correlated with airflow out of the mouth. 


The Sensor

The sensor mounts onto the side of the Oculus Rift on a flexible arm which allows for adjustments. This is an image of an early prototype. The sensor is thermistor based and primarily measures airflow leaving the mouth or nostrils though it's possible to detect inflow as well with more work on the software. 

Sensor from user perspective 

Sensor from user perspective 

Breathing Biofeedback Guided VR Relaxation

The video below shows a couple of demonstration experiences mapping breath to the virtual experience. Both experiences start out black, grounding the user in their body and then slowly fade into either a forest scene or a beach scene.

In the forest scene, the breath flows out of the mouth as a spray of particles which whimsically disappear into the environment. People liken it to blowing seeds off of a dandelion and also compare it to the feeling of smoking.

The beach scene is a more playful experiment of mapping breath to the specific object in the scene, in this case a ball. The ball changes from green to blue every 4.5 seconds and the guided meditation teacher coaches towards. People find this experience more fun. 


Flying Around the San Francisco Bay Area Using Your Breath

We exported some data from the Berkeley geological department and hacked it into a VR experience. This is a video showing some experimentation of having the environment respond to the breathing from a expansive vista point atop Mt. Tam.

The user can also choose to fly around the the bay. As they breath they are given an impulse forward in the direction they are looking. This creates a fun and novel way to navigate a virtual world and teaches someone to tune into their breathing surprisingly quickly. A light shows up on the screen to indicate a breath is being detected.


Simulating Cold Weather Breathing ... AND BREATHING FIRE!!

In this video, we created a breathing effect aimed at simulating the foggy breath experience during a cold winter day. It's very subtle and calming.

Lastly, we couldn't resist building a fire breathing example after so many people mentioned it upon trying the sensor.  


What We've Learned and Possible Uses

  • Breath can add a powerful level of immersion to VR experiences. People have said that just a simple breathing experience is much more immersive than many VR experiences they've tried.
  • People have a hard time visualizing their breath but VR works perfectly for this. It could be great for training users to work with PTSD, chronic pain, anxiety, child birthing, shots, and more.
  • Seeing the breath causes some people to get a similar benefit to smoking. There are some applications for smoking cessation / unwiring the neural pathway that enjoys seeing the breath via smoke.
  • People find it much easier to focus on their breath when it's directly in front of them and visual. This is useful for learning many meditation methods.
  • Outside of virtual reality, some people find they have a new and different relationship with their breath. One woman even dreamed about using her breath to fly multiple nights.
  • It would be possible use this for VR user analytics to see how someones breathing changes over the course of an experience using breathing and emotional state correlation research like this


What's Next

We're still exploring applications of this sensor modality for reducing pain and anxiety. We thought it'd be valuable to share some of the learning and progress, as I'm sure other people are working on similar types of applications.

If you are interested in getting breathing data into virtual reality feel free to comment / contact us. We could publish a build your own sensor peripheral manual or possibly commercialize this as a peripheral if there is enough interest.

Thank you for reading and please share this with anyone who you think it could benefit.

A breathing sensor that measures airflow out of the mouth of a VR user

A breathing sensor that measures airflow out of the mouth of a VR user