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Sway embraces the contradiction of meditating with your smartphone

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Mindfulness is a hot commodity these days. The market around meditation and mental well-being has, in recent years, ballooned to more than $1 billion, with countless websites, YouTube series, mobile apps, and subscription services existing on top of your traditional in-person classes and studio memberships. With just a few finger taps or mouse clicks, you can find a whole world of self-help gurus and zen advisors that are eager to help you, oftentimes for free, enhance your self-awareness and better cope with negative emotions.

The sheer enormity of the industry is enough to overwhelm any stressed or anxious individual, to say the least. And that’s precisely what drew me to Sway. The iOS app, costing just $2.99, is a different kind of mindfulness software. It uses the motion of the phone, as measured by the accelerometer, to try and put you into a relaxed and meditative state for about 20 minutes per day.

The idea centers on moving your phone around in a gentle circular motion, while lush nature sounds from the app help facilitate the calming effect. You can also walk at a steady rhythmic pace, while leaving the phone in your pocket. If you’re moving too fast, or too slow, the app will alert you so you can adjust. In my time using the app every day for the past week, I found it be a pretty low-effort but surprisingly high-reward experience. I’ve ended up using Sway about once every two hours or so to clear my head — and write this article, it turns out.

The app was conceived by interaction designer Peng Cheng and developed in partnership with digital design studio Ustwo’s Malmo, Sweden, division. You may recognize Ustwo as the brand behind breakout mobile game Monument Valley. That app was a blissful and meditative experience of its own, relying on mind-bending graphic design, cryptic narrative elements, and abstract and atmospheric sound design to create an otherworldly experience. Much of the same visual and audio aesthetics can be found in Sway, which employs minimalist colors and scatters sparse lines of text on-screen only when absolutely necessary.

Its Cheng’s philosophy, however, that gives Sway its power. The designer worked with Ustwo three years ago to develop Pause, a similar mindfulness app that had you tracing shapes with your finger on the phone screen. With these apps, Cheng’s design outfit Pauseable is trying to create the effect of simple meditation without the intense instruction and repetitious practice that makes modern mindfulness apps feel like chores. The goal with Sway is pretty simple: let anyone anywhere meditate using only the motion of their hand and a pair of headphones. Cheng tries to achieve this by treating the smartphone not as a detracting force you have to ignore, but as a tool that’s essential to the process.

“The idea of Sway is actually really simple: we want to bring the mind back to the body. Most of the time we use our body in a rather mechanical or automatic way, but the body is actually an amazing tool for mindfulness practice,” Cheng says in a promotional video for Sway. “We’re using technology to sense human voluntary attention.” The music and the visuals are just there to help sustain the focused attention, he adds. In fact, the visuals aren’t integral. Pauseable and Ustwo designed the app so you wouldn’t need to look at the screen at all.

It’s this embrace of the phone as an object necessary to this particular meditative practice — and not just a window to an on-screen guide — that sets it apart. Most apps of this variety, like the mobile mindfulness leader Headspace, rely on what’s known as guided meditation. They ferry you, through voice lessons and illustrated graphics, like a teacher would. The goal is to help you learn the tenets of meditation and explore a number of ways to apply those lessons to your work performance or your diet or even your dating life.

The apps themselves are mostly there to gamify the experience — letting you unlock new “levels” and earn rewards for hitting your goals — and to act as databases for a multitude of different existing techniques for you to explore. In the case of Headspace, that means paying a subscription fee that costs anywhere between $6 to $13 a month (or a whopping $419.95 for a lifetime membership) to access a majority of the content. It’s certainly an option for those looking to get quite serious about making meditation and mindfulness practice a big part of their daily routine.


Photo: Pauseable/Ustwo

But there is an inherent contradiction in relying on software to help you find peace of mind, when so much of modern life’s anxieties feel linked to our hyper-accelerated news feeds and dependencies on social networks and the steady drip of messaging notifications. If you’re seeking a healthier and more mindful mental state, it seems more difficult to do so while staying helplessly tethered to a smartphone screen and LTE data connection. Of course, you can take your learnings from an app like Headspace and leave your phone behind. Or you could sign up for a good old-fashioned meditation class at a yoga studio. But it still begs the question: how at peace can these practices be when they’re impossible to access without staying plugged in?

Sway, at the very least, embraces the contradiction. It doesn’t treat technology as a foe, but it’s not also completely dependent on it. It recognizes that our smartphones will reasonably be with us at all times. It then uses that fact to create a meditation system that’s always at your fingertips, and devoid of the burdensome feeling of a gym membership. Of course, it may not be as intensive and thorough as Headspace, or as life-changing and rigorous as traditional meditation practice. But it’s bite-sized mindfulness for when the news notifications feel like an avalanche and Twitter feels like a vice, which is just when you might need the relaxation the most.

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