It’s hard to be a "relaxation" app in the iTunes store. If all you want is some looped nature sounds on your iPhone, one might be hard-pressed to justify paying $0.99 or more for the "value" of some tacky gradient wallpapers thrown on top of material you can easily download for free. Thunderspace, a new chillaxing app from Taptanium (the makers of Haze, which we wrote about here, costs a buck and includes the requisite gradients, but at least tries to innovate in its user experience as well. Its "stereoscopic 3-D audio" may lull your eyes to close, but Thunderspace has a clever visual trick that you may miss if you nod off.
In most respects, Thunderspace is just like any other nature-sounds-for-meditation app, except with some trendy gestural navigation wrapped around it. Swipe right to reveal a list of sounds on offer, and you’ll find the usual pitter-patter of summer rain, gentle gusting of desert winds, and the like. The site brags about collaborating with an Emmy-winning nature sound recordist to create "3-D" audio recordings, but they didn’t sound dramatically more immersive than standard stereo audio to me. Where Thunderspace actually gets interesting is in its use of the iPhone’s camera flash to augment its soundscapes.
Thunderspace’s trick is to pop off a flash of light in sync with sounds of thunder to simulate "realistic lightning." Idiotically gimmicky or incredibly effective? If it’s possible to be both at once, Thunderspace has done it. I laid down in a dim room, cued up the "Roof Garden" loop in my headphones, and set my iPhone above my head out of sight, as the app’s tutorial urged me to. The lush sounds piping directly into my skull were pleasant enough (okay, that Emmy winner probably is worth bragging about), but when the ceiling pulsed with diffuse white light in time with the thunderclaps, something clicked in the primitive pattern-matching circuits of my monkey brain. It wasn’t enough to "fool" me that a rainstorm was actually happening. But the sense-impression of it was qualitatively different—and better—than if I had just been listening to sounds alone.
With this ultra-simple visual augmentation, Thunderspace goes beyond the capabilities of most relaxation apps in that it creates a bona fide user experience that seems to expand beyond the confines of your iPhone. The first time I watched the demo video above, I thought the depiction of a "real" rainstorm happening inside the user’s apartment was silly at best and intentionally obfuscatory at worst, since it seems to tell you nothing about what the "user experience" of the app actually is (i.e., what the screen looks like as you poke at it). But it turns out that the video is actually a pretty decent depiction of what the experience is meant to feel like. It has nothing to do with the screen, or the gradients, or the gestures. Syncing up some simple but powerful sensory cues is enough to take you someplace else—no Retina resolution necessary.