If space is the go to place for virtual reality (VR) developers, then the ocean follows closely behind it. Few things can prove as immersive as diving into the unknown and studios are exploring that at both ends of the spectrum, from the terrifying experience of being attacked by a shark to getting up close with wildlife that could previously only be glimpsed at through a TV screen. DEEP, a new title by indie developer Owen Harris that’s not to be confused with Project Morpheus’ The Deep, brings something new to seabed. Instead of struggling for air supplies or trying to catch glimpses of whales, DEEP tasks players with something that can be much more challenging; relaxing.
Like many VR videogames, DEEP wants you to explore. It wants you to feel like you’ve stepped into an entirely new world and take in fantastical sights and sounds. And what sights and sounds they are; this is an eye-widening underwater landscape which assaults the senses with bold colours, spritely sea life, deep canyons and fascinating structures. But in order take this all in, players must first learn to breathe.
Navigating DEEP’s impossibly beautiful world is done by wearing a sensor around the stomach that measures the player’s diaphragmatic breathing. As the player breathes in, their stomach should naturally expand, causing them to lift off in-game and be propelled forward in whichever direction the user is facing with the Oculus Rift head-mounted display (HMD) on. In turn, exhaling will start the player’s descent. The idea is to somewhat passively force players into relaxing breathing exercises. It’s a concept similar to Flying Mollusk’s Nevermind, though switches out heart rates for breathing and fear control for anxiety control.
On paper, this is the kind of idea that should be championed; using VR’s immersion not just as a tool to entertain but also to improve health and wellbeing. In practise, it takes a little bit of stress before being able to experience the intended effects. The first few minutes with DEEP are very much about working out the kinks in your approach to breathing, and the entire time the player is taking various deep breaths, the camera stubbornly refuses to shift. It’s a frustrating experience, but necessary to ensure that the rest of your time with the videogame is pleasant. Harris is also working on a training mode that should eliminate the rough start.
Getting past this opening hurdle proves well worth it. Before long, with everything properly adjusted, DEEP becomes a soothing, wondrous experience. It grants a somewhat empowering feeling as players are able to travel just about anywhere as long as they maintain a steady command of their breathing. You might choose to peacefully sink to the bottom of a canyon and bury yourself away in the world for a while, or playfully attempt to chase flocks of luminous fish that dart around. This is a world that captures your attention, draws you in and gives you plenty of reasons to stay.
There are still plenty of questions surrounding DEEP, however. Just how large of an area will players be able to explore? What support for peripherals will it offer? Harris has a while to provide that answers, given that DEEP has no firm release date at this point in time.
DEEP taps into perhaps one of the most exciting potential applications of VR with its focus on breathing. Paired with Nevermind, a new genre of videogames is starting to emerge from the technology, one that could genuinely improve the lives of its fans. There are issues to work out, but this is a project that already deserves recognition for its unique approach to VR.