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.