Opinion.

Mindfulness In The Age of IOT.

Reid Schlegel.

August 1st, 2022.

Huge Design Director of the Connected Product team Reid Schlegel delves into the merging of mindfulness and technology and how tech brands can continue crafting IOT devices that prioritize the practice of mindfulness.

If you are feeling mentally scattered these days, you’re in good company. According to the American Psychological Association, 87% of Americans say they feel like they’ve been living over the past two years through “a constant stream of crises.” As our minds are pulled in so many directions — whether by the pandemic, climate change, social unrest, political division, the war in Ukraine, or any number of other frightful challenges — finding ways to be grounded and present can feel impossible. The question becomes: how can we still feel and acknowledge the immediacy of these crises without being consumed by them? How do we not just manage our stress, but continue to prosper and grow?

For me and many others, the answer is, and has always been, mindfulness. Practiced for thousands of years in many Eastern religious and secular traditions, mindfulness was first popularized in America in the 1960s by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, known as the "father of mindfulness.” Since then, non-religious meditation and the concept of mindfulness has proliferated as Western culture sought antidotes for increasing stress. Coinciding with the rise in mindfulness practice, the presence of technology grew in our lives. Today, tech brands are merging these two seemingly opposing forces — mindfulness and technology — through IoT (internet of things) devices.

As both an industrial designer and a long-time meditator, believe me when I say the results are mixed.

Tech brands, such as Muse, Urban Leaf, NeoRythm and Focus Calm, all make wearable IoT devices to help “improve,” “empower” or “track” stationary meditation and mindfulness. These devices incorporate sensors to transmit data between each other and users via the internet. Though well intentioned, they fundamentally miss the point. Silent, stationary meditation is a critical part of every mindfulness practice, but it is only one piece. Placing too much emphasis on this singular facet teaches new practitioners that mindfulness is a one and done activity, not a constant, lifelong journey.

I can attest to the stress-reducing benefits of a prolonged mindfulness practice. I cherish my 20 minutes of quiet reflection each morning, which grounds me in the present, quiets my thoughts and prepares me for the day ahead. Just as you cannot drink a glass of water in the morning and remain hydrated all day, meditation requires periodic visits to the well throughout the day. Taking five deep belly breaths in between meetings, slowly chewing my food, taking a quiet walk during lunch — they all bring me back to the present moment, decluttering my mind and releasing both the past and future’s grip on my attention.

That is not the M.O. of these devices, which use EEG and other sensors to track real-time feedback to show how “well” the practitioner is meditating. Meanwhile, other products “encourage” brain activity to enhance and track the effects of mindfulness. If you’re getting Fitbit vibes here, you’re not the only one. These devices’ designs negate mindfulness’ core principle of non-judgment. Mindfulness must be approached with no expectations, and it resists quantification. Simply put, mindfulness cannot be won. In addition, these products rely on blinking, buzzing and chiming push notifications to lead us to their companion smartphone apps, dictating when to be mindful and taking us away from the present moment. How might we design products that return us to our present selves while encouraging holistic behavior change?

David Rose, a product designer and lecturer at the MIT Media Lab, may have already articulated the answer. In his 2014 book “Enchanted Objects,” Rose described the emergence of magical everyday artifacts that, thanks to advanced technologies, would someday be able to intuit our needs. Eight years later, designers are finally catching on.

Google, in partnership with London-based industrial design studio Map, created a series of products called Little Signals that do just that. Through ambient computing, simple products intuitively engage with sound, movement and subtle visual cues to pull us back to the present moment, helping us engage with our mindfulness practice throughout the day. At Huge, our own industrial design team took the concept of enchanted objects to heart when designing Mindspace, a suite of work-from-home office products that encourages mindful attention throughout the work day. The Mindspace lamp glows when meetings are approaching, allowing participants to smoothly transition, while leaving time for breathwork before the call to clear their minds. Attachable chair sensors change the color of the lamp to encourage correct posture and intermittent walks.

No matter the scenario, form or context, all products that remove distractions and subtly ease us through our day and back to mindfulness will improve our lives and our practice overall. In a world so full of distractions and stressors, all we can do is choose how to engage with them. As a designer, I choose to embrace mindfulness, while continuing to design and advocate for products that keep us present. And if a bit of magic ever sneaks its way in, so much the better.