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Tech by VICE

Peace Is Every Dubstep: Meet the Deprivation Chamber Instrument That Will Chill TED Out

Music has been central to meditation for thousands of years, in part because it helps "chill people out": But the artist and technologist Jay Vidyarthi is trying to flip...

by Lara Heintz
Feb 10 2012, 10:54pm

Music has been central to meditation for thousands of years, in part because it helps chill people out. But the artist and technologist Jay Vidyarthi is trying to flip that formula on its head, with a machine that uses breathing patterns to create immersive soundscapes – and then feed them straight back into your brain to create an textured, infinite loop of bliss.

His project, Sonic Cradle, is equal parts interactive installation, biofeedback system, and meditation chamber. It works by suspending the user in a darkened sensory deprivation chamber, then uses their meditative breathing patterns to craft responsive soundscapes from a library of sounds, thus augmenting the meditative effect.

Since we encountered him last year, Vidyarthi, who began the project as a grad student at Vancouver’s School of Information Arts and Technology, has updated the system with a massive collection of sounds and, using binaural recording, have fine-tuned the system to optimize the interaction of breathing patterns and sound-making. And they’ve just announced it will debut at TEDActive, the punkier little brother of the prestigious idea-fest that takes place this month. Unlike the main conference, held in the city of Long Beach, California, TEDActive goes down in the desert of Palm Springs, where a much more relaxed vibe reigns.

“The hypothesis is that we can give non-meditators an intimate feeling of meditation, and that will help them relieve stress in the short-term, and motivate them to establish their own practice in the long-term,” Vidyarthi told me.

While the Sonic Cradle will appear at TEDActive under the label of “tech art”, Vidyarthi, who performs as a musician when he’s not studying psychology and computer-human inter­ac­tion, considers it more of a research design tool. The approach, he says, has a scientific bent, attempting to use design and technology to address real issues of stress and anxiety.

The idea that technology can be psychologically therapeutic could be a valuable lesson at TED, where the future comes fast and furious, and the focus is often getting (mind-blowing, world-saving) things done. “Technological interfaces don’t have to be aimed at productivity and efficiency and such,” says Vidyarthi.

“You don’t need big bright screens and crazy graphics to make an engaging experience,” he adds. “We can create devices for personal use to help us calm down, relax, meditate, and, I venture, many other applications as well. And I believe we should.”

Update: an earlier version of this story said that SIAT was in Calgary. That has been corrected. It also identified Darwin Frost as a co-creator of the project with Vidyarthi. Frost helped with construction in its first month, but is no longer involved.