On Technology and Focus: ASMR, VR, and the First Steps Toward Immersive Single Tasking

Around 2010, a curious new term arose in obscure but energetic internet chatrooms: autonomous sensory meridian response. ASMR, as it was soon abbreviated, described a peculiar form of paresthesia experienced as a tingling that starts in the scalp and then moves down the back. It’s often triggered by specific sounds, like soft whispering or a paintbrush scraping canvas. Not surprisingly, those sensitive to ASMR sometimes found Bob Ross reruns to be a reliable source of the effect.

What makes ASMR relevant to our interests here is that it happened to emerge as a topic of discussion just as YouTube emerged as a cultural force. Soon a cottage industry arose of AMSR videos featuring meticulously recorded trigger sounds. One such video opens on a straw stirring seltzer water. A little later it zooms in on a knife scraping dried blush on a make-up tray. It’s been viewed over four and a half million times.

The reason I know about ASMR is that as these “tingle videos” grew in popularity, they spawned a sub-genre called ASMR rooms. The goal in these videos was no longer to trigger the classical tingling response, but instead to invoke a sense of meditative calm and focus.

One such video, for example, is a mostly static shot of Charles Dickens’s victorian-style writing room, with animated flames crackling in the fireplace and a storm raging outside the windows. The scene runs for close to two hours. The only thing that changes is the intensity of the rain:

A popular variety of ASMR room scenes recreates locations from the Harry Potter universe. A couple days ago, a reader pointed me toward one of her favorite examples of this category, a recreation of the magical workshop of Newt Scamander from the Fantastic Beasts movies:

This video features both rain and glowing oil lamps. Extra touches include a glass vessel containing gelatinous, glowing, magical ephemera, and a writing quill that ever so slowly rotates in its inkwell.

The reader told me that she plays the video full screen on her computer while positioning a word processor document in front of it. She listens to the stereo sound in high quality noise cancelling headphones. Though she works out of a “small and noisy urban flat,” the video and sounds help her fall into a state of concentration when she needs to write.

I mention this all because I’m increasingly convinced that something interesting is happening here. 

I’ve written before about immersive single tasking, my term for applying technology to induce states of productive and rewarding concentration. It seems like the thriving ASMR room community may currently hold something close to a lead in investigating this possibility.

To me, the next logical step is to figure out how to make this work in a virtual reality context, where the effect of the immersion would be significantly amplified.

The connection between ASMR and virtual reality is at least a half-decade old. And more recently, people have begun porting the ASMR room experience into this new medium as well:

The big problem with the latter trend, however, is that you cannot easily work if you have a large plastic rig covering your eyes. To immerse yourself in a 3d virtual reality recreation of Hogsmeade village on a snowy evening might indeed put you into a state of creative contemplation, but it’s a waste if you can’t also craft any useful artifacts during your moments of techno-induced concentration.

Which brings me to a recent idea: why not integrate automated speech recognition? Perhaps we’re just one small step into the adjacent possible away from actually deriving a strong immersive single tasking benefit here. What if, in other words, we augmented a VR ASMR room with basic speech recognition functionality?

Here’s what I roughly imagine: While you sit in Newt Scamander’s magical workshop, listening to the rain, and examining the haphazard cabinets of curiosities that surround you, a simple click of your VR controller puts you in transcription mode, and your speech automatically appears fleetingly in the scene as lines on the piece of parchment arranged on the desk. When you’re done, your notes are stored safely in a text file.

This would not be an efficient way to polish a chapter of your complex novel, but it could be just what you need to figure out the outline that gets you past a tricky plot point, or, in another context, unstick a new business strategy for your company, or capture an insight that unlocks a recalcitrant proof.

I don’t know whether or not VR AMSR rooms combined with voice recognition technology would actually provide a useful amplification of our latent deep work capabilities, but in a moment in which we’re temporarily stuck in our homes due to a pandemic, eager to produce things that matter, while also constrained by the prosaic limitations of our “small and noisy” surroundings, the time has never been better to start experimenting with the role technology can play in unlocking our cognitive potential.

35 thoughts on “On Technology and Focus: ASMR, VR, and the First Steps Toward Immersive Single Tasking”

  1. Hi Cal,

    Thanks for the post – as always, insightful and thought provoking.

    I work with VR and am researching uses for the technology in a flight training context. To suggest a possible solution to the discussion above – mixed reality (MR), where passthrough cameras can be used to see certain ‘real world’ objects whilst immersed in a virtual world, could be used for this purpose. Essentially, one could be immersed in Newt’s workshop, but still be able to see and use a real note pad and pen.

    Just a thought…….

    Keep up the great work.
    Glen (NZ)

      • Even easier than this, Logitech or some company sells a keyboard with a tracking puck that lets you bring your physical keyboard into VR.

        You can use Virtual Desktop or Oculus’ native software to have your desktop open as a floating rectangle while you have a 360 panorama of Hogwarts in the background, or some future cityscape.

        The higher end headsets are more comfortable, I’d imagine – my first generation Oculus Rift CV1 was too low resolution for desktop work, being about 720p equivalent pixel density when blown up across your entire field of view and really caused me some strain when I tried doing sessions longer than two or three hours, a combination of the screen, low fov and weight. It’s a little awkward to drink out of a normal mug in VR, but doable. A huge hit to immersion every time though.

        Taking off the headset after a long session is the strangest thing, though, as you forget where you were at, and your brain acclimates to processing a lot more visual information. A few months into the experience I started perceiving reality itself like planes of color combined together to create objects, kind of like waking up in the Matrix but the wrong way. Terribly dissociative to feel that reality isn’t real but consciously know that isn’t the case. Your brain knows the virtual world isn’t real, the real world looks almost identical to the virtual world, transitive property… it wears off but it’s very trippy. A huge fan of VR for escapism, especially in room scale experiences.

        • Hi EMERALD PHAM, I love your comments here. Have you heard of (or known) Randy Pausch? He was a Disney lover and creator/researcher of many VR teaching tools, as I understand it. I think you would love his book (or better yet, pick up the audiobook as the narrator, Erik Singer did an AMAZING job). The book is “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch. I may have the title skewed a little…I just can’t remember the exact title, but anyway. GREAT read or listen.

    • Really great article! It suggests a way to provide the focus-inducing sanctuary we all long for but don’t all have access to, as much as we try to optimize our current work spaces.
      Glenn’s comment and Emerald Pham’s reply below are great solutions to what my immediate reaction was: “ick, talking out loud?!” I really love the idea of providing a self-contained immersive environment conducive to focus, but my flow tends to be prompted by writing and is disrupted by speaking. (Not to mention that my rambling would be disruptive to those around me!)

      Glenn, I especially like your insight about mixed reality. It would allow this solution to be adopted by people like me who prefer long form writing by hand rather than using a keyboard.

  2. VR immersion to improve productivity seems excessive, given our already addicted behaviors to tech. Our spouse and children are being ignored enough, this would only magnify impulse to escape realty, under the noble guise of productivity.

    • I think where he is coming from is expanding on using technology to help us get in a deeper state of productivity, when there is constant distractions. ASMR rooms really helps me as a college student when I am trying to focus and share a room with two other people, and being constantly distracted. When we don’t have the option to do deep work in a undistracted quiet environment, ASMR rooms help a lot.

  3. I also fear this might be misguided… like drinking whiskey in the morning to alleviate the hangover from last night’s drunken party. We shouldn’t fight the bad effects from technology with more of it.

    The integrity, the wholeness and the relationality of non-virtual life, that’s where the rest is for our tired souls. Being able to let go of technology is what makes us able to use it wisely when we really need to.

    • Indeed. The logical conclusion here seems to be more and more VR, less and less reality. If quality time can only be achieved in VR what’s to stop people from living there, or more strikingly what attracts them to stay in the real world. It’s a nice idea, but too slippery and steep a slope.

  4. Hi Cal,

    Love this post. A geek fantasy of mine is to have Hiro Protagonists’ (Snow Crash) hacking space in VR. Sort of cyberpunk lair meets Victorian study.

    I have tried programming in VR and it actually works better than you think — as long as you have good muscle memory for the keyboard.

    The good news is that Apple actually patented “Keyboard operation with head mounted device” in October of this year… https://uspto.report/patent/app/20200326847

  5. I live part of the year in Orlando, and one of my favorite productivity tricks was heading down to the Disney Hotel lobbies just to work in their ambiance. They’re much less crowded than the parks and explicitly designed as a place to cool down after all the chaos.

    Sitting in a massive 7 story oak cabin next to a Christmas Tree, a boardwalk where people on group bicycles trod past. Animals next to the window, or the comforts of the Yacht and Beach club. If you’re ever in Disney World or Orlando, spend some time exploring the hotel lobbies and side areas. You can park there for free even if you don’t have a hotel reservation (but it’s guaranteed if you have a restaurant reservation!) I’ve brought my family to watch fireworks at the Polynesian on a freeloader basis, and I am incredibly thankful for the many ASMR style rooms I can visit a half hour away from home when all of us get vaccinated.

  6. My wife designs VR simulations for educating nurses and other healthcare professionals. As a nurse myself, I have often helped her play-test these scenarios and I find them incredibly immersive, and they can trigger the same emotional responses as caring for actual patients. VR has enormous potential for learning and for focused work.

  7. Your thoughts and article remind me of LED Wall technology used in making the Star Wars series “The Mandalorian”. Search YouTube with this title and you’ll see what I’m talking about: “Why ‘The Mandalorian’ Uses Virtual Sets Over Green Screen | Movies Insider”. Now THAT is immersive technology. It would be ridiculously expensive at this point to have computer monitors big enough on a desk to be immersed while working (creating), but it would be outrageously cool. Am I right or way off base? It seems that this is how the earlier comment from Study Hacks could become a reality. Pun intended.

    • My boys and I were just watching videos about that technology. Very, very cool.

      Of course, for the cost of that setup you could just actually rent a cabin in a really scenic location

  8. These background ambience sound videos are available in quite a few different versions connected to different fandoms. I particularly like the Star Trek-themed ones, for example: Star Trek: TNG Bridge Background Ambience 8 HOURS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKBvaOLDem0
    (Hope the link is ok)

    Apparently no-one in the future knows how to turn off chirping sounds on their devices, so I’m not sure it will bring focus and/or sleep (maybe that’s what the night shift version is for). But it definitely activates fond childhood memories!

  9. I’ve been listening to ASMR since 2012 and discovered the ASMR rooms not too long ago. A VR ASMR room would be the coolest thing ever. (Imagine working in a VR version of the Bodleian library or something…) This could be a game-changer for those of us who are very sensitive to our work environments.

  10. The scene is interesting. When I looked, they all have sounds as well. Falling rain and a crackling fire place. Not music, but enough sound to keep the brain aroused.
    Could the image be combined with biaural beats for concentration?
    When I searched, there are dozens of YouTube Videos for exactly that. Seems useful.

  11. If I’m in a virtual workshop or study, I think I might like to simply have a virtual typewriter on the table in front of me. Then I can use my (nice, mechanical) keyboard for input in the traditional fashion.

  12. This is fascinating. I actually thought everyone got the tingling sensation and didn’t realize it was a “thing”. I find the changing sounds in the linked video a little too intense, but a crackling fireplace soundtrack sounds divine.

  13. Facebook just presented this at their last “Connect” conference a few months ago — they’re partnering with Logitech to have a keyboard you can see and use while in VR, and they’re working on productivity software called “Infinite Office”. They’ll likely be released within a few months. The future is already here, and you don’t have to use speech-to-text if you don’t want to. And what’s crazy is that their new all-in-one VR headset is just $299.

    See their video for how it works if you want to learn more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_bVkbG1ZCo&ab_channel=Oculus

  14. This made me think that VR solutions might be interested in some case, but the real solution is to design beautiful buildings and offices, something we somehow don’t know how to do anymore. It is not a coincidence that the videos show Victorian environments. So, the no tech solution to this problem (good architecture and design) should be the way to go.

  15. It’s so weird–your blog post is the third time someone I follow has mentioned ASMR in the last week! I’m a fan of BrainFM’s binaural beats when I need to do deep work. I also like https://www.ambient-mixer.com/ for this (they have an app, but I find it a little buggy). I don’t know if these would fall under the ASMR label, but they’re immersive.

  16. Thank you for pulling all these elements together in your article. I would like to expand beyond VR to walking while listening to music, podcasts or nature. These I often do and would like a simple way to talk my mind without screaming for Siri and avoiding the frustration of being in the middle of a thought and hearing the Ding, telling me the program has decided your idea pondering time is up.

    Our instant thoughts, stimulated from crackling images, engaging creative and introspective environments can be the foundation of so much creative.

    So who wants to stop talking about it and discover a solution.

    Maybe not an implant?

  17. Thank you for pulling all these elements together in your article. I would like to expand beyond VR to walking while listening to music, podcasts or nature. These I often do and would like a simple way to talk my mind without screaming for Siri and avoiding the frustration of being in the middle of a thought and hearing the Ding, telling me the program has decided your idea pondering time is up.

    Our instant thoughts, stimulated from crackling images, engaging creative and introspective environments can be the foundation of so much creative.

  18. Hey, Cal. I am unable to follow my schedule because I procrastinate too much.But,when I have a to-do list I am able to accomplish much more than when I have a definite schedule. Why is that and do you have any suggestions to fix that?

  19. I have been listening to a sound track of waves on a beach recently and decided to try an ASMR room video after reading this. I opted for a crackling fire and rain on an iPad next to my main screen. The visuals added something extra but the word I would use to describe both is “comforting”. It seems obvious that it’s easier to focus when you feel comforted, who doesn’t want to be a little calmer or less anxious, but it’s not a word I usually hear when people talk about workspace design. I’m now looking at other elements of my workspace to see how it might be more comforting – but not so much that I end up back in bed with my laptop and a blanket. There are also existing elements like a favourite picture that I know I wanted in my home office but I couldn’t have told you why and I can now appreciate that they have some comforting qualities.

  20. Your article is interesting. Here’s what I’m wondering: What percentage of people watch the videos because they actually have a legitimate physical response like tingling? What percentage are watching them just because they’re generally relaxing? My guess is that the latter is more prevalent. I am wondering this because I have ASMR, and the videos have never produced the same amount of intensity of a reaction that a real life scenario produces. Not only that, but when I’m experiencing ASMR I cannot focus on anything other than the sound or action itself. It feels like a trance-like euphoric state. I am a teacher, and I have actually felt “annoyed”–to an extent–when there are ASMR type sounds happening in my classroom, because I can’t get any work done while it’s happening! Haha…so the idea of ASMR experiences being an opportunity for focused productivity seems somewhat flawed…at least for those of us who are actually experiencing the response.


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