“What does wellbeing have to do with virtual reality? Isn’t VR a form of escapism?” I work with mindfulness and VR, and I’ve been asked questions like this many times before. Often, my answers involve some sort of invitation, like “You have to just experience it yourself to find out.” It’s decidedly not escapism—in my view, it brings you closer to yourself (and others) than most other mediums or environments. I’ve heard Jaron Lanier define VR’s relationship with a notion of “self” in over twenty different ways, and Kent Bye is now coming out with a podcast about philosophy, augmenting his stellar “Voices of VR” series… no doubt, virtual reality urges, nearly demands, a user to form some sort of opinion or relationship with a concept of self outside the normal constraints or boundaries of our standard five senses. By freeing up the conditions, we’re faced with a new question: how do we want to be, and how do we choose to live? Paradoxically, this world in virtuality is not outside or beyond ourselves. It’s completely us, with an intimacy that can strike us in the purest sense. And, we have a possibility, then, when we’re in this world, to imagine, to dream and to hope.
As 2020 begins, we’re seeing VR approach mainstream mass adoption, yet we’re still in what I’d call pioneering stages…. It could be that its biggest promise, gauging by the popularity of games like the record-breaking Beat Saber, lie in interactive VR sports. Experiences that involve both the mind and body. Things that get us moving, responding and interacting with the virtual world around us in a visceral way that involves movement and sense, in a way that gets our brains fired up. This points to the next phase of what technology can do to enhance our lives.
With all of this in mind, I recently attended the annual TTC (Transformative Technology Conference) in Palo Alto. A conference with a mission “to permanently move a billion people into a state of wellbeing and flourishing by 2030,” TTC is in its fifth year and features the best of the best in wellness apps, gaming, and integrated wearables. I listened to keynotes and panels, tested out new products, and hobnobbed with entrepreneurs and researchers ranging from neuroscientists to techpreneurs focused on a wide range of projects, most of them able to be tested on-site. I had arrived at the CES of wellbeing.
After the experience at TTC, I’ve culled out some of my most memorable takeaways—just a few of the visionary creations and ideas I’m keeping in mind as we approach a brave new world of integrative tech. I’m still conducting research, and share my current musings as a way to map the journey and foster deeper inquiry and discovery.
An upfront apology to the unmentioned: The following list is not comprehensive. These are highlights, and there’s certainly more to add. These days, I’ve been envisioning a chart that distinguishes between different types of tech-rich wellness experiences and apps, and I have yet to come up with a suitable graphic or chart that could reflect current categories in this space. I’ve attempted to create some ways to qualify and sub-categorize types, and the first big distinction is that some experiences are in VR, and some are in the “real world”… Few are focusing on AR at the moment. The reason is likely that VR is the most immersive medium, and perhaps the most conducive to mindfulness, or mindful awareness, conveying a sense of focus and calm while transporting the senses. So, in the first division of tech wellness, some experiences require a headset, and others don’t involve VR at all.
The second division has to do with data gathering and monitoring with/without biofeedback. Some experiences, apps and devices are designed to monitor biofeedback in order to inform, and some have been designed with the aim of directly affecting the body through the technology, to “recalibrate,” in a sense. In the first case, a person can use the gathered data and information to make choices, self-regulate, and achieve better wellness; in the second, the technology provides some sort of active intervention.
The last distinction I’ve noticed is the nature and form of the technology—it could be hardware, it could be a curated, guided experience, it could be a methodology, it could be an app. Everything falls into the “digital therapeutics” umbrella, yet there was so much range on stage at TTC that it’s hard to even reflect it here in a featured article.
This is an appetizer, and I’m shining a light on a few products and experiences that captured my curiosity. Looking at the trends, many convey a sense of wonder, freeing up new possibilities for health. I am eager, as many of us are at this stage, to see if and how these tech applications might support us and lead us to a better world, and a better individual and collective existence. As ever, we must each further the investigation and judge for ourselves. These are exciting times, and the future is in our hands, in our minds.
So, here are ten of my highlighted digital therapeutic wellbeing experiences from TTC, delineated by category, with a brief note about what to expect when you dive in for yourself, and where to go to find out more:
VR with integrated biofeedback
Looxid Labs: From the early stages of founding in 2015, the special part about the Looxid Labs tech has been their aim to read emotions through an AI-algorithm integrated into HMD systems through eye-tracking and brainwave signals. Basically, they use EEG readings to track emotion response, which TechCrunch previewed back in 2017.
Recently, Looxid Labs rolled out Looxid Link, which integrates its capabilities directly into the VIVE and VIVE Pro. A user can access the EEG readings and use them within VR. At TTC, they demoed an experience they designed called VR Mind Care, which leads a user through a mindfulness experience and integrates biofeedback. Some applications of Looxid Link coming up, with download availability projected for early 2020, include neurogaming in VR, where you can use EEG tracking features to power your actions in a superpower game.
Lumena: Founded by Finnish entrepreneur Kaleb Matson, Lumena (which means “the time and place where snow is falling”) is a Denver-based start-up that has developed an immersive “MindBodyPod,” which I’m including as a VR experience because it’s 3-D projections that surround you. With a combination of visual and audio cues and biofeedback, the Pod is designed to transport the user through a meditative experience. Meditation and mindfulness are forms of workouts for the brain, making the whole body stronger and healthier, so these types of programs could become a major part of e-sports offerings in the near future.
VR without biofeedback
Tripp VR: Tripp calls itself an “adaptive digiceutical,” a mental health prescription that doesn’t require a pill. It’s a virtual wonderland of colorful landscapes that aim to engage your brain in a chilled out, transportative experience, where it’s all about letting go and moving into that ever-elusive state of flow. There’s also a Tripp mobile app that lets you track your mood along with using the VR experience. Tripp VR has been available on Oculus Go, and is rolling out new releases that are compatible with Oculus Quest and Rift, HTC Vive, Lenovo Mirage, Playstation VR and more. And, it’s expanding content offerings to become the Netflix for virtual wellbeing. So, 2020 promises to be a big year for mindfulness in VR.
Flow Zone VR: I mentioned “flow” earlier, as it’s the ultimate goal, to allow humans to access, manage, and self-regulate their own levels of focus and “state of flow.” Is this another phrase for wellbeing? As a writer, I know that when I’m “in the zone” creatively, the words and ideas seem to come quite naturally, almost without effort. Similarly, in sports, athletes describe this “in the zone” feeling as a time when the basketball sinks into the net with each shot, when movement and muscle become one, and the body and mind feel as if they’re in complete connection. It’s hard to explain, but we all know it when we feel it. Flow Zone VR’s creators realized the capacity of the VR medium to lower the barrier-to-entry when it comes to achieving and maintaining a state of flow, and they integrated selected music into the experience designed to catalyze the flow experience. Through haptics, they have also allowed users to involve themselves in creating music through gestures. If all of this sounds intriguing, check out their 2019 research paper to learn more. At TTC, users were able to create their own immersive Flow Zone soundscape, working out with full-body movement in the process.
Space VR: With a tagline “soak in the sublime of space,” and a program that boasts the highest-powered VR camera ever launched into space, to say that Space VR is ambitious is an understatement. They now have zero-gravity experience sites all over the US, spreading the opportunity to feel like an astronaut in orbit. The founders at Space VR were first inspired to create their experience because of the “Overview Effect” phenomenon, a “cognitive shift in perspective that is linked to the experience of seeing Earth from outer space. Many astronauts have reported experiencing the effect, such as Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell.” SpaceVR has said, “With our multi-sensory, virtual experience we aim to help evolve planetary consciousness and solve global issues.” Again, not a small goal. You can learn more, and even look to book a space flight of your own at Space VR.
The following devices don’t use virtual reality, yet I was so impressed and intrigued by them that they earned a mention here. Plus, who knows, maybe someday soon the worlds will merge, and VR will incorporate some of the following technologies!
Wearable devices (hardware) used for monitoring purposes only (to monitor & inform)
Biostrap: I learned a great deal about the importance of tracking HRV (heart rate variability) through personally testing out Biostrap. Basically, in terms of HRV, if there is high variability between the gaps in your heartbeats, it indicates you are better rested, and a low variability indicates stress or overexertion. As a long-distance runner who has shirked the apps and trackers in the past, I’m now starting to see the merits of this type of self monitoring, which can inform how you plan your workouts—i.e. when to go hard, and when to take that much-needed rest day, based on your biometrics. Biostrap has a clean, comfortable design and fit, and can also track sleep patterns. For a full review, I found this recent one informative.
Feel: A wristband that uses biometrics to track and relate those inputs to emotions including joy, contentment, sadness, tension and distress, Feel bills itself as the first emotion tracker, with the intention of letting a user understand what habits and activities cause certain emotions. Currently, it’s designed in conjunction with CBT (cognitive-based therapy) and projects that in the next 2-5 years it will expand to address a wide range of biomarkers for wellness.
Wearable devices used with claim that it changes/improves quality of health (to recalibrate)
Apollo: Launched in September 2019, Apollo is a wearable and app experience developed by physicians and neuroscientists that produces “gentle layered vibrations” on the skin that are designed to induce a meditative state that increases focus and lowers stress. The vibration patters can be customized to fit a user’s goals. This recent write-up shares more about Apollo, researched by physicians in the Program in Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (PICAN) Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh: https://www.accesswire.com/560267/Dr-David-Rabin-Announces-the-Launch-of-Apollo-the-First-Wearable-that-Can-Accelerate-the-Bodys-Recovery
Sens.ai: SensAI had their first live public demo at TTC, featuring their neuro-wellness headphones and mobile app. Their goal is “to elevate performance and extend human cognitive longevity without side-effects.” They’re in my “watch this space” category, as I didn’t get to test it out for myself, but my curiosity was piqued.
Halo Neuro: Saving one of the prime highlights for last, Halo Neuro had one of the most captivating sessions at the conference, with co-founder Dr. Daniel Chao delivering an electrifying on-stage talk “Neuro-electronics: A New Dawn for the Brain.” Simply put, Halo Neuro is a brain stimulator that helps you develop muscle memory faster. Using their breakthrough algorithms and technology, the company has created Halo Sport, which is useful for everything from injury recovery, medical uses, and athletic training. Tried and tested, Halo Sport is documented as safe by over 4,000 peer-reviewed studies that cover 100,000 stimulation sessions. Not only am I keen to experience it myself, I’m eager to learn more about how it could work combined with VR, after talking with one of the algorithm creators, Mardis Bagley, who said it was not only possible, the integration is in the works.
My aim is to continue to find out more as these apps and experiences develop, focusing on how they affect physical, emotional and mental health and wellness. This realm of VR esports and wellbeing continues to evolve and shape the future of VR gaming as well and personal and professional development. Who knows? As we start 2020 and embrace the renewals and resolutions of the new year, perhaps we’ll be looking at body-building our health in VR! It doesn’t sound like such a stretch anymore, with transformative tech to support our goals and fit our lifestyles. In the realm of e-wellness, it’s a wide open field of possibility.