TRU LUV: Creating Calm

A screen shot of the TRU LUV app that shows an illustration of a person laying in bed under their covers. Different symbolic objects surround the bed such as candles.

TRU LUV is a company that creates interactive smartphone experiences using something called companions––not quite games, and not quite apps––with the goal to calm users and help them feel connected. The #SelfCare and BreatheLUV apps from TRU LUV were created in collaboration with artists and neuropsychologists. #SelfCare especially has received huge praise from its users and was featured as Best of 2018: Trends of the Year in the Apple app store––further evidence that this company is truly onto something. We talked with Brie Code, TRU LUV’s CEO and creative director, to tell us more about what they are creating.

Tell us about TRU LUV and your #SelfCare and BreatheLUV apps.

At TRU LUV we’re making apps that feel like friends. They sit somewhere in between games and apps. We call them companions.

Companions are about personal growth, co-creation, and shared goals. They are not about domination or winning. Most apps either present you with overwhelming options and ask you to make too many decisions, or they measure you and tell you what you should be doing with aggressive notifications and timers. Both are hierarchical and demanding of energy. A companion is more like a friend who happens to have the same goals as you. Maybe a companion gives you energy.

Most apps and games use stress, frustration, or FOMO to keep you engaged. With companions, we’re experimenting with new forms of interaction design that build on care, not stress. For example, instead of following curves that go from easy to hard, we follow curves that go from disconnect to connected, or from awkward to orderly.

Four screen shots of TRU LUV’s #SelfCare App.

Our first companion is #SelfCare, designed by artist, writer, and editor Eve Thomas. It’s a companion for reducing anxiety and building strength. It’s a mental health day when you don’t have time to take a full mental health day. In it a character has decided to stay home for the day. They refuse to leave their bed. They are surrounded by their favorite sacred things, such as a massager, Tarot cards, and bubbles. Each one holds a relaxing interaction that helps the character feel better and maybe helps you feel better at the same time.

#SelfCare was named by Apple as one of their Trends of the Year as part of their Best of 2018. {Editor’s note: Freaking awesome!}

What is the goal of your company?

We want to feel better using technology. We love the internet and all the amazing changes it has brought to our lives, such as connecting us with other queer people and helping us get home safely late at night. But many of our interfaces to technology and to the internet are broken. They are causing us unnecessary stress.

We are building up a set of patterns of better interaction design to create better products. As we move into the next jump in our level of connection, with voice interfaces, smart objects, and smart glasses, we want to make sure that we are there with products that not only ease people’s stress but energize and empower them.

What inspired you to create TRU LUV?

I’ve been working in tech and games for almost two decades. I noticed that there were very clear patterns between my friends who liked video games and my friends who didn’t. My friends who like video games like feeling stressed, a sense of danger and conquering an arbitrary challenge. My friends who don’t like video games prefer to relax by taking care of people or things that need taking care of, by connecting with others or with complex webs of characters in literature or other products. I found a very simple explanation for this pattern.  

Four screen shots of TRU LUV’s app. The screens say “Breathe in. Breath out,” and show a glowing lotus flower.

About half of us have a fight-or-flight response to stress, which causes a spike of adrenaline in the body and makes us want to fight and to win. When we win, we get a dopamine reward. This is the core of game design theory. We stress the player, give them an opportunity to win, and then keep them in a channel between ever increasing challenge and reward until the game ends. Although I’ve been working in games I’ve never liked this part. I just like caretaking and meeting characters.

And as it turns out, about half of us have another response to stress, called tend-and-befriend. A release of oxytocin stops the release of adrenaline. Oxytocin makes us want to take care and to connect. When we do, we get an endorphin reward. And endorphins also make us want to do similar behaviors.

If you have a tend-and-befriend response to stress and an app or a game stresses you out and then doesn’t provide you with an opportunity to take care or to connect, you will remain stressed. I believe that this is what apps and games are doing to half of us. So I created TRU LUV to see how we might do things differently.

How do you see your apps contributing value to the mindful technology community?

We hear a lot of advice going around about how to disconnect from technology that is harming us. But for many/most/(all?) people, disconnection is not an attainable goal. We need to use these technologies for work, for school, for connecting with our families. Trying to set limits or control our usage is just setting ourselves up for failure and for more stress.

Research shows that not all screen time is damaging. It depends on what you are doing and what apps you are using, and it can vary from person to person. Self-care, care and connection are positive and pro-social behaviors that help us all be better to ourselves and to each other. And play is how we naturally learn. We believe strongly in bringing care, connection and play together in a framework to change the way we relate with our technology.

Brie Code, TRU LUV’s CEO and creative director.

Brie Code, TRU LUV’s CEO and creative director.


What advice would you give others who are trying to build technology for a better world?

Much of our systems, institutions, frameworks, and other structures have been designed by one kind of person—white, western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic (WEIRD), cisgender men. And much of the research we build on has been done by studying WEIRD college students, often men, or studying male rats.

This means that many of our assumptions we make about ourselves or the things we’ve been taught about ourselves may be wrong. I was raised being told I have a fight-or-flight response to stress but I usually don’t. It took me over a decade in the games industry to realize that the gap between the way I wanted to interact with technology and the way technology was designed to be interacted with was not just a problem for me or a problem with me and generalized to many people.

To build technology that works for everyone we need to include everyone in the design process. Diverse teams are proven to be more innovative than even expert teams at solving complex problems. If you want to build for a better world, I’d suggest including a wide range of voices in your team. I’d also test early and often with a wide range of people. And I’d be open to their feedback and iterate.

What does mindful technology mean to you?

To me, mindful technology is technology that helps us know ourselves and our minds and bodies more and reflects ourselves back at us. It is technology that empowers us and enables us in our own identities, talents, and goals, especially when those goals are pro-social. It is not technology that trains us to respond to external cues, holds us for longer than we intended, or manipulates us for corporate goals.

What can we expect next from you and how can people follow along?

We’ve got our heads down creating some improvements for #SelfCare that will grow it from a moment for relaxation to a long-term friend for personal growth. We’re also on Twitter and most active on Instagram.

Find out more about TRU LUV by visiting their website and watching the short video below.


All images from TRU LUV.

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