Researcher shows how popular app ES File Explorer exposes Android device data

Why is one of the most popular Android apps running a hidden web server in the background?

ES File Explorer claims it has over 500 million downloads under its belt since 2014, making it one of the most used apps to date. It’s simplicity makes it what it is: a simple file explorer that lets you browse through your Android phone or tablet’s file system for files, data, documents and more.

But behind the scenes, the app is running a slimmed-down web server on the device. In doing so, it opens up the entire Android device to a whole host of attacks — including data theft.

Baptiste Robert, a French security researcher who goes by the online handle Elliot Alderson, found the exposed port last week, and disclosed his findings in several tweets on Wednesday. Prior to tweeting, he showed TechCrunch how the exposed port could be used to silently exfiltrate data from the device.

“All connected devices on the local network can get [data] installed on the device,” he said.

Using a simple script he wrote, Robert demonstrated how he could pull pictures, videos, and app names — or even grab a file from the memory card — from another device on the same network. The script even allows an attacker to remotely launch an app on the victim’s device.

He sent over his script for us to test, and we verified his findings using a spare Android phone. Robert said app versions 4.1.9.5.2 and below have the open port.

“It’s clearly not good,” he said.

A script, developed by security researcher , to obtain data on the same network as an Android device running ES File Explorer. (Image: supplied)

We contacted the makers of ES File Explorer but did not hear back prior to publication. If that changes, we’ll update.

The obvious caveat is that the chances of exploitation are slim, given that this isn’t an attack that anyone on the internet can perform. Any would-be attacker has to be on the same network as the victim. Typically that would mean the same Wi-Fi network. But that also means that any malicious app on any device on the network that knows how to exploit the vulnerability could pull data from a device running ES File Explorer and send it along to another server, so long as it has network permissions.

Of the reasonable explanations, some have suggested that it’s used to stream video to other apps using the HTTP protocol. Others who historically found the same exposed port found it alarming. The app even says it allows you to “manage files on your phone from your computer… when this feature is enabled.”

But most probably don’t realize that the open port leaves them exposed from the moment that they open the app.

Samsung’s new Galaxy M smartphones will launch in India first

Samsung will launch its new lower-priced Galaxy M series in India before the smartphones roll out globally. Asim Warsi, senior vice president of Samsung India’s smartphone business, told Reuters that three devices will be available through its website and Amazon India at the end of January and are intended to help the company double online sales.

Samsung is currently trying to recover its lead in India, the world’s second-largest smartphone market behind China, after losing it to Xiaomi at the end of 2017, when Xiaomi’s sales in India overtook Samsung for the first time, according to data from both Canalys and Counterpoint.

Xiaomi’s budget Redmi series gave it an advantage since Samsung had a dearth of competitors in the same price bracket, but analysts noted the Korean electronics giant maintains an edge in terms of R&D and supply chain expertise. Samsung leaned into those strengths last year, opening what it describes as the world’s largest mobile phone factory in Noida, just outside of New Delhi.

Specs about the three Galaxy M smartphones emerged last month, with details appearing on platform benchmark Geekbench about devices called M10, M20 and M30, the latter of which may be powered by an Exynos 7885 chip with 4GB ram.

Warsi told Reuters that “the M series has been built around and incepted around Indian millennial consumers.” The price range of Indian-first smartphones will be from less than 10,000 rupees (about $142) to 20,000 rupees. TechCrunch has emailed Samsung for more information about the new phones.

The company will debut the latest version of its flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S10, in San Francisco on Feb. 20.

Xiaomi’s five-year plan is a $1.5 billion bet on smart homes

Xiaomi, the Chinese company best known for budget phones, is betting big on a future of connected homes. It plans to plough at least 100 billion yuan, or $1.48 billion, into the so-called “AIoT” sector over the next five years, founder and chief operating office Lei Jun announced on Friday.

AIoT, short for “AI + IoT,” is an upgrade from devices connected to the internet, known as the Internet of Things. AIoTs are intelligent, run on automated systems and can learn from users’ habits, like lights that automatically turn on when you get home.

“We see a future where all home devices will be connected to the internet and controlled by voice. A wave of home appliances will be replaced by smart devices. There will be an AIoT network that infiltrates every second and scenario of people’s lives, collecting mountains of users, traffic and data,” said Lei in his annual address to employees.

The plan is to get all sorts of gadgets, not just handsets, onto Xiaomi’s operating system so the company can hawk services through these devices. The move comes as Xiaomi, the world’s fourth-largest smartphone vendor, copes a weakening market. Smartphone shipments in China were down more than 15 percent year-over-year in 2018, according to a government-backed research institute.

Phones remain strategically important to Xiaomi as it looks to lower-end phones for growth. On Thursday, the company announced it has split up (not spin out) its budget phone brand, Redmi, in hope of launching “red rice” — what Redmi means in Chinese — to Xiaomi’s “little rice” stardom. The strategy is similar to how Huawei operates sub-brand Honor for its line of cheaper phones.

Xiaomi’s new billion-dollar pledge is a continuation of a plan in 2013 to back 100 startups over the course of five years. These portfolio companies, in turn, helped make Xiaomi products, which now count 132 million total devices among which 20 million are active daily. Meanwhile, Xiaomi’s voice assistant Xiao Ai has hit 100 million installs.

These gadgets, along with an assortment of lifestyle products like suitcases and umbrellas, became the largest revenue driver for Xiaomi in the second quarter of last year, the company’s earnings report shows.

Xiaomi is in a land grab with other Chinese tech giants like Baidu to enter people’s homes. It’s becoming something akin to a department store, but it can’t make everything itself. Recently, the giant made a big push in TVs through a partnership with a veteran Chinese home appliance manufacturer. It’s also teamed up with IKEA on a 100 million yuan ($14.8 million) fund for third-party developers, which will enrich Xiaomi’s inventory as consumers in China may soon be able to buy many Xiaomi-powered furniture from the Swedish retailer.

Millions of Android users tricked into downloading 85 adware apps from Google Play

Another day, another batch of bad apps in Google Play.

Researchers at security firm Trend Micro have discovered dozens of apps, including popular utilities and games, to serve a ton of deceptively displayed ads — including full-screen ads, hidden ads and running in the background to squeeze as much money out of unsuspecting Android users.

In all, the researchers found 85 apps pushing adware, totaling at least 9 million affected users.

One app — a universal TV remote app for Android — had more than five million users alone, despite a rash of negative reviews and complaints that ads were “hidden in the background.” Other users said that there were “so many ads, [they] can’t even use it.”

The researchers tested each app and found that most shared the same or similar code, and often the apps were similarly named. At every turn, tap or click, the app would display an ad, they found. In doing so, the app generates money for the app maker.

Some of the bad adware-ridden apps found by security researchers. (Image: Trend Micro)

Adware-fueled apps might not seem as other apps packed with malware or hidden functionality, such as apps that pull malicious payloads from another server after the app is installed. At scale, that can amount to thousands of fraudulent ad dollars each week. Some ads also have a tendency to be malicious, containing hidden code that tries to trick users into installing malware on their phones or computers.

Some of the affected apps include: A/C Air Conditioner Remote, Police Chase Extreme City 3D Game, Easy Universal TV Remote, Garage Door Remote Control, Prado Parking City 3D Game, and more. (You can find a full list of apps here.)

Google told TechCrunch that it had removed the apps, but a spokesperson did not comment further.

We tried reaching out to the universal TV remote app creator but the registered email on the since-removed Google Play store points to a domain that no longer exists.

Despite Google’s best efforts in scanning apps before they’re accepted into Google Play, malicious apps are one of the biggest and most common threats to Android users. Google pulled more than 700,000 malicious apps from Google Play in the past year alone, and has tried to improve its back-end to prevent malicious apps from getting into the store in the first place.

Yet the search and mobile giant continues to battle rogue and malicious apps, pulling at least 13 malicious apps in sweep in November alone.

China’s Baidu says its answer to Alexa is now on 200M devices

A Chinese voice assistant has been rapidly gaining ground in recent months. DuerOS, Baidu’s answer to Amazon’s Alexa, reached over 200 million devices, China’s top search engine announced on its Weibo official account last Friday.

To put that number into context, more than 100 million devices pre-installed with Alexa have been sold, Amazon recently said. Google just announced it expected Assitant to be on 1 billion devices by the end of this month.

Voice interaction technology is part of Baidu’s strategy to reposition itself from a heavy reliance on search businesses towards artificial intelligence. The grand plan took a hit when the world-renown scientist Lu Qi stepped down as Baidu’s chief operating officer, though the segment appears to have scored healthy growth lately, with DuerOS more than doubling from a base of 90 million installs since last June.

When it comes to how many devices actually use DuerOS regularly, the number is much less significant: 35 million machines a month at the time Baidu’s general manager for smart home devices announced the figure last November.

Like Alexa, which has made its way into both Amazon-built Echo speakers and OEMs, DuerOS also takes a platform play to power both Baidu-built and third-party devices.

Interestingly, DuerOS has achieved all that with fewer capabilities and a narrower partnership network than its American counterpart. By the end of 2018, Alexa could perform more than 56,000 skills. Devices from over 4,500 brands can now be controlled with Alexa, says Amazon. By comparison, Baidu’s voice assistant had 800 different skills, its chief architect Zhong Lei revealed at the company’s November event. It was compatible with 85 brands at the time.

This may well imply that DuerOS’s allies include heavy-hitters with outsize user bases. Baidu itself could be one as it owns one of China’s biggest navigation app, which is second to Alibaba’s AutoNavi in terms of number of installs, according to data from iResearch. Baidu said in October that at least 140 million people had activated the voice assistant of its Maps service.

Furthermore, Baidu speakers have managed to crack a previously duopolistic market. A report from Canalys shows that Baidu clocked in a skyrocketing 711 percent quarter-to-quarter growth to become China’s third-biggest vendor of smart speakers during Q3 last year. Top players Alibaba and Xiaomi, on the other hand, both had a sluggish season.

While Baidu deploys DuerOS to get home appliances talking, it has doubled down on smart vehicles with Apollo . The system, which the company calls the Android for autonomous driving, counted 130 OEMs, parts suppliers and other forms of partners as of last October. It’s attracted global automakers Volvo and Ford who want a foothold in China’s self-driving movement. Outside China, Apollo has looked to Microsoft Azure Cloud as it hunts for international partnerships.

Baidu has yet to prove commercial success for its young AI segment, but its conversational data trove holds potential for a lucrative future. Baidu became China’s top advertising business in part by harnessing what people search on its engine. Down the road, its AI-focused incarnation could apply the same data-crunching process to what people say to their machines.

In major TV push, China’s Xiaomi buys 0.5% stake in TCL

A veteran TV maker just got a notable refresh as it enters the age of connected devices. Xiaomi, the Beijing-based firm best known for budget smartphones, has bought 65.2 million shares, or 0.48 percent, of Chinese home appliance maker TCL, said TCL in a statement to the Shenzhen Stock Exchange on Sunday.

Shares of TCL, the world’s third-largest LCD TV manufacturer, jumped nearly 4 percent in morning trading on Monday, giving the company a market cap of $36 billion.

The financial gesture deepens an existing alliance between the duo. On December 29, the companies signed a strategic partnership that would see them collaborate on various fronts, including R&D in integrating smart devices with “core, high-end, and basic” electronic parts. To put in layman’s terms, the joint effort focuses on chips and will make it easier for TCL devices to incorporate into Xiaomi’s operating system, where an expanding universe of third-party gadgets reside. The partners may also make co-investments in the hardware field.

The tie-up provides “tremendous help” for Xiaomi as it ups the ante in home appliances, wrote Xiaomi founder and CEO Lei Jun on Weibo, China’s closest answer to Twitter, in a reply to TCL’s CEO Li Dongsheng. During the third quarter of 2018, smart TVs helped drive revenue growth for Xiaomi’s non-smartphone hardware segment, shows the company’s financial results.

“[Our partnership] helps facilitate the transformation and upgrade of China’s manufacturing industry,” wrote Li, whose company started in 1981 as a cassette manufacturer.

Xiaomi has long been keen to team up with manufacturers to make its own branded devices instead of producing them itself. By early 2018, Xiaomi reached nearly 100 such partners, many of which Xiaomi had invested in to harness bargaining power in the supply chain, from what a smartphone should look like to how much it’s priced at. Xiaomi’s retail stores — available online and in physical manifestations — have also opened doors to third-party brands in an effort to broaden product selection.

Xiaomi’s close ties with its ecosystem partners result in an inventory of affordable products rivaling the likes of Fitbit and Apple. During the third quarter of 2018, Xiaomi topped the global chart by shipping 6.9 million units of wearables. Apple and Fitbit came in second and third with 4.2 million units and 3.5 million units, respectively, according to market research firm IDC.

Xiaomi derives most of its revenues from smartphones, though Lei Jun has long envisioned a future in which internet services will be the firm’s main force. This segment, which Xiaomi has marketed as its key financial differentiator against other phone brands, includes sales from mobile games, internet finance, paid content among a slew of services available through Xiaomi’s connected devices.

Apple losses trigger a plunge in US markets

Bad news from Apple and signs of slowing international and domestic growth sent stocks tumbling in Thursday trading on all of the major markets.

Investors erased some $75 billion in value from Apple alone… an amount known technically as a shit ton of money. But stocks were down broadly based on Apple’s news, with the Nasdaq falling 3 percent, or roughly 202.44 points, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeting 660.02 points, or roughly 2.8 percent.

Apple halted trading of its stock yesterday afternoon to provide lower guidance for upcoming earnings.

Apple’s news from late yesterday that it would miss its earnings estimates by several billion dollars thanks to a collapse of sales in China was the trigger for a broad sell-off that erased gains from the last trading sessions before the New Year (which saw the biggest one-day gain in stocks in recent history).

Apple’s China woes could be attributed to any number of factors, D.A. Davidson senior analyst Tom Forte said. The weakening Chinese economy, patriotic fervor from Chinese consumers or the increasingly solid options available from domestic manufacturers could all be factors.

Sales were suffering in more regions than China, Forte noted. India, Russia, Brazil and Turkey also had slowing sales of new iPhone models, he said.

Investors have more than just weakness from Apple to be concerned about. Chinese manufacturing flipped from growth to contraction in December and analysts in the region expect that the pain will continue through at least the first half of the year.

“We expect a much worse slowdown in the first half, followed by a more serious and aggressive government easing/stimulus centred on deregulating the property market in big cities, and then we might see stabilisation and even a small rebound later this year,” Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura in Hong Kong, wrote in a report quoted by the Financial Times.

U.S. manufacturing isn’t doing much better, according to an industrial gauge published by The Institute for Supply Management. The institute’s index dropped to its lowest point in two years.

“There’s just so much uncertainty going on everywhere that businesses are just pausing,” Timothy Fiore, chairman of ISM’s manufacturing survey committee, told Bloomberg. “No matter where you look, you’ve got chaos everywhere. Businesses can’t operate in an environment of chaos. It’s a warning shot that we need to resolve some of these issues.”

The index remains above the threshold of a serious contraction in American industry, but the 5.2-point drop from the previous month in the manufacturing survey is the largest since the financial crisis, and was only exceeded one other time — following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the U.S.

Put down your phone if you want to innovate

We are living in an interstitial period. In the early 1980s we entered an era of desktop computing that culminated in the dot-com crash – a financial bubble that we bolstered with Y2K consulting fees and hardware expenditures alongside irrational exuberance over Pets.com . That last interstitial era, an era during which computers got smaller, weirder, thinner, and more powerful, ushered us, after a long period of boredom, into the mobile era in which we now exist. If you want to help innovate in the next decade, it’s time to admit that phones, like desktop PCs before them, are a dead end.

We create and then brush up against the edges of our creation every decade. The speed at which we improve – but not innovate – is increasing and so the difference between a 2007 iPhone and a modern Pixel 3 is incredible. But what can the Pixel do that the original iPhone or Android phones can’t? Not much.

We are limited by the use cases afforded by our current technology. In 1903, a bike was a bike and could not fly. Until the Wright Brothers and others turned forward mechanical motion into lift were we able to lift off. In 2019 a phone is a phone and cannot truly interact with us as long as it remains a separate part of our bodies. Until someone looks beyond these limitations will we be able to take flight.

While I won’t posit on the future of mobile tech I will note that until we put our phones away and look at the world anew we will do nothing of note. We can take better photos and FaceTime each other but until we see the limitations of these technologies we will be unable to see a world outside of them.

We’re heading into a new year (and a new CES) and we can expect more of the same. It is safe and comfortable to remain in the screen-hand-eye nexus, creating VR devices that are essentially phones slapped to our faces and big computers that now masquerade as TVs. What, however, is the next step? Where do these devices go? How do they change? How to user interfaces compress and morph? Until we actively think about this we will remain stuck.

Perhaps you are. You’d better hurry. If this period ends as swiftly and decisively as the other ones before it, the opportunity available will be limited at best. Why hasn’t VR taken off? Because it is still on the fringes, being explored by people stuck in mobile thinking. Why is machine learning and AI so slow? Because the use cases are aimed at chatbots and better customer interaction. Until we start looking beyond the black mirror (see what I did?) of our phones innovation will fail.

Every app launched, every pictured scrolled, every tap, every hunched-over moment davening to some dumb Facebook improvement, is a brick in bulwark against an unexpected and better future. So put your phone down this year and build something. Soon it might be too late.

The top smartphone trends to watch in 2019

This was a bad year for the smartphone. For the first time, its seemingly unstoppable growth began to slow.

Things started off on a bad note in February, when Gartner recorded its first year-over-year decline since it began tracking the category. Not even the mighty Apple was immune from the trend. Last week, stocks took a hit as influential analyst Ming-Chi Kuo downgraded sales expectations for 2019.

People simply aren’t upgrading as fast as they used to. This is due in part to the fact that flagship phones are pretty good across the board. Manufacturers have painted themselves into a corner as they’ve battled it out over specs. There just aren’t as many compelling reasons to continually upgrade.

Of course, that’s not going to stop them from trying. Along with the standard upgrades to things like cameras, you can expect some radical rethinks of smartphone form factors, along with the first few pushes into 5G in the next calendar year.

If we’re lucky, there will be a few surprises along the way as well, but the following trends all look like no-brainers for 2019.

5G

Attendees look at 5G mobile phones at the Qualcomm stand during China Mobile Global Partner Conference 2018 at Poly World Trade Center Exhibition Hall on December 6, 2018 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province of China.

GUANGZHOU, CHINA – DECEMBER 06: Attendees look at 5G mobile phones at the Qualcomm stand during China Mobile Global Partner Conference 2018 at Poly World Trade Center Exhibition Hall on December 6, 2018 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province of China. The three-day conference opened on Thursday, with the theme of 5G network. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Let’s get this one out of the way, shall we? It’s a bit tricky — after all, plenty of publications are going to claim 2019 as “The Year of 5G,” but they’re all jumping the gun. It’s true that we’re going to see the first wave of 5G handsets appearing next year.

OnePlus and LG have committed to a handset and Samsung, being Samsung, has since committed to two. We’ve also seen promises of a Verizon 5G MiFi and whatever the hell this thing is from HTC and Sprint.

Others, most notably Apple, are absent from the list. The company is not expected to release a 5G handset until 2020. While that’s going to put it behind the curve, the truth of the matter is that 5G will arrive into this world as a marketing gimmick. When it does fully roll out, 5G has the potential to be a great, gaming-changing technology for smartphones and beyond. And while carriers have promised to begin rolling out the technology in the States early next year (AT&T even got a jump start), the fact of the matter is that your handset will likely spend a lot more time using 4G.

That is to say, until 5G becomes more ubiquitous, you’re going to be paying a hefty premium for a feature you barely use. Of course, that’s not going to stop hardware makers, component manufacturers and their carrier partners from rushing these devices to market as quickly as possible. Just be aware of your chosen carrier’s coverage map before shelling out that extra cash.

Foldables

We’ve already seen two — well, one-and-a-half, really. And you can be sure we’ll see even more as smartphone manufacturers scramble to figure out the next big thing. After years of waiting, we’ve been pretty unimpressed with the foldable smartphone we’ve seen so far.

The Royole is fascinating, but its execution leaves something to be desired. Samsung’s prototype, meanwhile, is just that. The company made it the centerpiece of its recent developer conference, but didn’t really step out of the shadows with the product — almost certainly because they’re not ready to show off the full product.

Now that the long-promised technology is ready in consumer form, it’s a safe bet we’ll be seeing a number of companies exploring the form factor. That will no doubt be helped along by the fact that Google partnered with Samsung to create a version of Android tailored to the form factor — similar to its embrace of the top notch with Android Pie.

Of course, like 5G, these designs are going to come at a major premium. Once the initial novelty has worn off, the hardest task of all will be convincing consumers they need one in their life.

Pinholes

Bezels be damned. For better or worse, the notch has been a mainstay of flagship smartphones. Practically everyone (save for Samsung) has embraced the cutout in an attempt to go edge to edge. Even Google made it a part of Android (while giving the world a notch you can see from space with the Pixel 3 XL).

We’ve already seen (and will continue to see) a number of clever workarounds like Oppo’s pop-up. The pin hole/hole punch design found on the Huawei Nova 4 seems like a more reasonable route for a majority of camera manufacturers.

Embedded Fingerprint Readers

The flip side of the race to infinite displays is what to do with the fingerprint reader. Some moved it to the rear, while others, like Apple, did away with it in favor of face scanning. Of course, for those unable to register a full 3D face scan, that tech is pretty easy to spoof. For that reason, fingerprint scanners aren’t going away any time soon.

OnePlus’ 6T was among the first to bring the in-display fingerprint scanner to market, and it works like a charm. Here’s how the tech works (quoting from my own writeup from a few months ago):

When the screen is locked, a fingerprint icon pops up, showing you where to press. When the finger is in the right spot, the AMOLED display flashes a bright light to capture a scan of the surface from the reflected light. The company says it takes around a third of a second, though in my own testing, that number was closer to one second or sometimes longer as I negotiated my thumb into the right spot.

Samsung’s S10 is expected to bring that technology when it arrives around the February time frame, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of other manufacturers follow suit.

Cameras, cameras, cameras (also, cameras)

What’s the reasonable limit for rear-facing cameras? Two? Three? What about the five cameras on that leaked Nokia from a few months back? When does it stop being a phone back and start being a camera front? These are the sorts of existential crises we’ll have to grapple with as manufacturers continue to attempt differentiation through imagining.

Smartphone cameras are pretty good across the board these days, so one of the simple solutions has been simply adding more to the equation. LG’s latest offers a pretty reasonable example of how this will play out for many. The V40 ThinQ has two front and three rear-facing cameras. The three on the back are standard, super wide-angle and 2x optical zoom, offering a way to capture different types of images when a smartphone camera isn’t really capable of that kind of optical zoom in a thin form factor.

On the flip side, companies will also be investing a fair deal in software to help bring better shots to existing components. Apple and Google both demonstrated how a little AI and ML can go a long way toward improving image capture on their last handsets. Expect much of that to be focused on ultra-low light and zoom.

Virtual reality gaming and the pursuit of “flow state”

You need to stop procrastinating. Maybe it’s time for some…

Bulletproof Coffee, Modafinil, nootropics, microdoses of acid, caffeine from coffee, caffeine from bracelets, aromatherapy, noise-canceling headphones, meditation, custom co-working spaces, or productivity apps?

Whatever your choice, workers today (especially in the tech industry) will do just about anything to be more productive.

What we seek is that elusive, perfect focus or flow state. According to researchers, someone in flow will experience a lack of sense of self, a decline in fear, and time distortion. It is peak performance coupled with a euphoric high. All your happy neurotransmitters fire, and your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex performs differently –you do not second guess yourself, you quite simply just flow into the next stages of the activity at hand. And you happen to be performing at the highest level possible. Sounds amazing, right?

But how do we invite this state in? A detailed piece in Fast Company outlines how extreme sports (professional surfing, steep incline skiing, skydiving etc.) are the quickest way we’ve found to tap into human flow. Yet, these hobbies are just that — extreme. They require a large amount of skill and can be dangerous. For example, Steven Kotler, a pioneer in flow state research, broke almost 100 bones as a journalist researching the topic.

It all leads back to our collective (and very American) obsession with input versus output –are we achieving the most possible with the energy we put in? For all the bells and whistles at our disposal, we as a society are steadily declining in productivity as time goes on.

In 2014, a Gallup Poll found that the average American worker only spends a depressing 5% of their day in flow. A 2016 Atlantic article hypothesized that the main reason that we’re decreasing in productivity as a workforce is that we’re not introducing new technologies quickly enough. Tech like robotics and smartphones could add a productivity push, but aren’t being integrated into the workplace. Business models are for the large part not that different from 10 years ago. In essence, we’re bored — we’re not being challenged in an engaging way, so we’re working harder than ever but achieving less.

But what if getting into flow state could be as easy as playing a video game?

Gameplay in RaveRunner

I first met Job Stauffer, Co-Founder and CCO at Orpheus Self-Care Entertainment when I was, in fact, procrastinating from work. I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a clip of Job playing RaveRunner. As I love rhythm games, I immediately requested a build. Yet, I’d soon learn that this wasn’t just a simple VR experience.

RaveRunner was built for Vive, but easily ran on my Rift. When I first stepped into the game, I felt a bit overwhelmed — there was a lot of dark empty space; almost like something out of TRON. It was a little scary, which is actually very helpful for entering flow state. However, my fear soon dissipated as before me was a transparent yellow lady (Job calls her “Goldie”) dancing with the beat — providing a moving demo for gameplay. Unlike the hacking nature of Beat Saber where you smash blocks with lightsabers, in WaveRunner you touch blue and orange glowing circles with your controllers, and move your whole body to the rhythm of the music.

There’s a softer, feminine touch to WaveRunner, and it wasn’t just Goldie. Behind the design of this game is a woman, Ashley Cooper, who is the developer responsible for the gameplay mechanics that can help a player attain flow. “Being in the flow state is incredibly rewarding and we strive to help people reach it by creating experiences like RaveRunner,” says Cooper. RaveRunner is a game you can get lost in, and by stimulating so many senses it allows you to let your higher level thoughts slip away — you become purely reactionary and non-judgemental.

In essence — flow.

After playing in this world for an hour, I called Job and learned more about his company. Apart from RaveRunner, Orpheus has also rolled out two other experiences — MicrodoseVR and SoundSelf. I got my first hands-on demo of all three products in one sitting at a cannabis technology event in Los Angeles, Grassfed LA. Grassfed is specifically geared towards higher brow, hip tech enthusiasts; and the Orpheus suite of products fit right in.

As I lay in a dome with meditative lighting; a subwoofer purring below me; SoundSelf gave me one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had in VR. I chanted into a microphone and my voice directly influenced the visuals before me. It felt like my spirit, the God particle, whatever you want to call it, was being stimulated from all these sensations. It was such a beautiful experience, but also was pure flow. I felt 2 minutes pass in the experience. I would have bet a hundred dollars on this. But I was inside for 10. Time didn’t make sense — a key indicator of flow state.

Next up was Microdose VR. I first tried Microdose VR in 2016 at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Esalen is the birthplace of the human potential movement, and so it was fitting that it was there, where I initially grasped the potential of VR for transformational experiences. Every other experience I had tried up to that point had been First Person Shooters or 360-video marketing pieces. And not to slight those experiences, but I felt that VR must be able to do MORE. Android Jones’ Microdose blew my mind. Like with SoundSelf, I completely lost track of time. I was directly impacting visuals with my body movements, and sound was a big factor as well. It was the first time I could easily imagine staying in VR for hours. Most of all, it was an experience that was only possible within VR. The game was the biggest euphoric rush I’ve felt in VR, and that feeling occurred again at this event.

We have the power as consumers to play games that tie in intrinsically with self care but often don’t have options available. Job was propelled down this path when he asked himself “if I invest one hour of my time per day into playing a video game, what will I personally gain from that time invested, and will I even have time left over to do genuinely good things for myself?”

Orpheus is pioneering the fusion of game design with traditional self-care practices like meditation, dance/exercise, listening to music and creating art: “In short, we simply want players to feel amazing and have zero regrets about their time spent playing our games, allowing them to walk away knowing they have leveled up themselves, instead of their in-game avatars alone.”

One thing that will make it easier for people to try these experiences are portable headsets such as the ViveFocus and the Oculus Quest. Being untethered will allow people to travel with VR wherever they may go. Job sees this fundamental shift right ahead of us, as “video games and self-care are about to become one in the same. A paradigm shift. This is why all immersive Orpheus Self-Care Entertainment projects will be engineered for this critically important wave of VR.”

Orpheus is not a VR-only company, although their first three experiences are indeed for VR. As they expand, they hope to open up to a variety of types of immersive experiences, and are continually looking for projects that align with their holistic mission.

At the end of the day, I love that Orpheus is attempting to tap into a part of the market that so desperately needs their attention. If we don’t make self-care a major part of VR today, then we’ll continue to use VR as a distraction from, as opposed as a tool to enhance, our daily lives.

As for me, along with the peppermint tea, grapefruit candle, and music that make my focus possible, I’ll now be adding some Orpheus games into my flow repertoire.