Flow, VR, and Distortion

TLDR: There is a fantastic business to be built here.

What is Flow?

Pioneered by author Millay Csikszentmihalyi (in his book, “Flow”), flow is a term used to describe complete and enjoyable immersion in an activity. It is, interestingly enough, a phenomenon that has been found in nearly every culture, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to label it a universal human ability. If this is all new to you, start with this instead.


According to Csikszentmihalyi, Flow is the combination of nine elements:

  1. Clear goals for every step
  2. Immediate feedback loops
  3. A balance between challenge and skill
  4. A merging of action and awareness
  5. No conscious distractions

6. No worry of failure

7. A disappearance of self-consciousness

8. Sense of time is distorted

9. Activity becomes autoelic (an end in itself)

Enter VR

I've recently begun to notice the move of VR into the productivity space, which I'm very excited about. Here's a CES VR recap, or an Oculus app to expand your work zone.

VR's great promise is that it can simulate whatever environment or tools you desire. Of course, the hidden but far more impactful effect is the automatic distraction-free zone it creates. You can't check your phone if you have a headset on, unless it's a virtual phone. This fact alone is why I am so bullish on VR EdTech, but maybe I'll save that for another post.

So, VR can de facto satisfy flow condition #5 - a distraction-free environment. Maybe even an environment that is conducive to focused work, like a calm meadow, a beach by quiet waves, or a desk behind a waterfall. The advent of Unreal Engine and Unity means that anyone will eventually be able to design (or at least, commission) their dream work environment.

But the part that we are still working to grasp is that VR opens to door to challenge basic laws of physics. The first next step will be environments that are impossible on Earth - floating on a cloud, working on Mars, or sitting inside a live volcano for those high-pressure work sessions (maybe even have the volcano explode when the time's up).

But there's more.

Enter Time

Another condition of flow is a distorted sense of time. What if you could simulate that in VR as well, and induce flow at a faster rate? I'm imagining a work session in a pristine forest, where time goes by as quickly or as slowly as is necessary. What if your Pomodoro timer, instead of being a buzzing clock in your ear, was the sun in the sky? Maybe you could benchmark certain tasks to certain times of day, and every time you checked one off, you got closer to darkness. A day could then last 3 hours if you wanted a focused session, or it could be 30 hours for a code marathon. Time would be discretized according to events, instead of the constant speed it enforces in the physical universe.

This could be taken a level further with some simple bio-readings. There are several papers on how to measure the psychological state of flow. You could sync a device to your simulated work environment, so that all time slowed down once you entered flow. If your heart rate was too high, or you were manifesting symptoms of excessive stress, your environment could adapt with softer colors, or produce a cute animal to give you a short break. It'd be the equivalent of the scene in Inception, where the characters in a dream are manifestations of the dreamer's subconscious.

This opens Pandora's box for all sorts of sleep chaos and might be the beginning of the end of the Circadian rhythm (a bad thing, because that rhythm evolved over millennia and VR did not). But, it could also create a world where anyone, no matter their actual work or home environment, could plug in and get done what they wanted to get done.

The self-help industry is massive, and let's be real - most "productivity" books and posts don't really help that much. People spend thousands of dollars each year for the cheap lie that "this one thing will make them productive" and "help them achieve everything they ever wanted." A well-calibrated VR-environment, on the other hand, could actually make good on a small part of the productivity promise. What would that be worth?