The New York Times, July 20, 2012

Original article here:


AT the start of every session of “d.compress: Designing Calm,” students stand in a circle and recount a “calming moment” from the past week. They might describe a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, a lingering sunset or laughing with loved ones. After each recollection, participants inhale and exhale together, slowly. The point of the exercise is to attain the same mental state that they aim to elicit with the mobile applications they are developing.

Designing Calm,” a graduate course at Stanford’s Institute of Design, is part of an emerging field that seeks to alleviate stress by embedding mindfulness into the devices that pervade contemporary life.

“Chronic stress primes the body for all kinds of disease and dysfunction,” says Neema Moraveji, who directs Stanford’s new Calming Technology Lab. “Here, we are focused on calmers, which trigger the opposite of stress: a state of calm, or flow, for the user.”

Dr. Moraveji’s work is based on studies demonstrating that slow, steady breathing, along with cultivating gratitude and savoring pleasurable experiences, can improve productivity and well-being. His doctoral research led to his invention of “breathwear,” a belt rigged with a sensor that detects respiratory rate. If the user enters “e-mail apnea” — the affliction associated with a full in-box — an iPhone app provides an exercise that can restore optimal respiration. Breathwear is now in beta testing with the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine.

“Designing Calm” draws students from computer science, product design, engineering and biology. One student prototype allows iPhone users to assign colors to their moods; another app vibrates in tune with a distant loved one’s heartbeat; several involve sending text messages encouraging users to rate activities like sleep, hugs or meeting new people.

Among course instructors are Roy Pea, an education professor, and Gus Tai, a venture capitalist with Trinity Ventures. Mr. Tai provides entrepreneurial coaching for students whose projects might spin into start-ups. While the legacy of Stanford-Silicon Valley collaborations looms large here, Mr. Tai believes calming technologies signal a paradigm shift.

“A lot of Silicon Valley tech is oriented toward distracting,” says Mr. Tai, who meditates regularly. “But with calming tech, we’re asking how we can bring more balance to the world.”