Close your eyes, relax your senses and allow your imagination to run free.
People who have worked in a corporate environment or recently studied at school or college might be aware of the concept of wellness, mindfulness and guided meditation. It is an exercise one or several people are guided through a calming, imaginative and introspective exercise, often for the purpose of relaxation or building confidence and self-esteem. The overall effects often depend on the individual, but clinical studies have documented physical and mental health benefits to mindfulness and guided wellbeing, and many major corporations and public sector organisations swear by it, including Google, Apple, General Mills and even the US Army.
With exercises derived from Buddhist concepts, built primarily around closing your eyes and opening your mind, does technology have a place in mindfulness and corporate wellness?
In comes Happinss, a VR technology company based in San Jose California, who strongly believe that future of wellness comes from taking advantage of the immersive qualities of virtual reality.
“VR is an enhanced experience by itself”, Wang-tsu Liu, co-founder of Happinss, explained to me in an interview. “Most people use it for gaming or horror experiences, but we realized that it can enhance soothing experiences as well”
Interestingly enough the idea to create this visual way to boost wellbeing came from a love of travelling, and the interest people had to live vicariously through the adventures of others.
“I moved back to Canada and started a new life, shift my focus from a working mindset to doing things that I really loved, joined a couple of friends and started doing expeditions to remote locations around the world and with the help of social media we started sharing our adventures with the world, more and more people followed and a pattern started to emerged, we realize that many people followed because they wanted to travel and get inspired they used our social media to get away from the work hassles and mundane task of everyday life.”
With that realisation and a desire to bring these experiences from adventuring to people “in a more tangible way to the masses” came the formation of Happinss and a focus towards Virtual Reality. The use of an integration of visual, aural and verbal solutions to help boost wellbeing came from the co-founder of Happinss’ own experiences taking care of a family member with bi-polar disorder and depress, and “finding that music therapy helped her jump start the process of recovery.”
With that, Happinss was born, in the form of an app for iOS and Android which uses a combination of immersive experiences, music therapy and guided meditation to boost people’s health and wellbeing while reducing stress.
Bringing VR to the Office
Corporate wellness is a big deal and Happinss have just launched the first dedicated corporate VR wellness room at the Amdocs Development and Operations Center in Guadalajara, Mexico. According to Wang-tsu, this was a “total success”, with their President of Human Resources coming out “completely relaxed” and with the possibility of deploying to other Amdocs sites across the world, bringing VR relaxation to 28,000 employees. The company is currently studying the effects and behaviour of employees who take advantage of the relaxation room in order to “quantify the benefits VR brings to the work place.”
Stationing the first VR corporate relaxation room in Guadalajara, according to Wang-tsu, was not a coincidence, as it is “a well-known tech hub in [Latin America] and corporate wellness culture is at the core of the tech companies in the city.”
Trying out Happinss, having worked in a corporate environment that used many variations of mindfulness exercise (guided meditation, creative visualisation) was a strange exercise. Generally for visualisation exercises you keep your eyes closed, and much of the exercise is relaxing your mind and body enough to start vividly imagining.
Wang-tsu Liu explained it to me that an inherent part of the VR experience is that “it enhances the sense of freedom, it creates a sense of tranquillity, it helps you focus in a more rapid and efficient way. It allows the user to just be there in an instant without having to think about it or concentrate. It forces you first to experience the world through your eyes which have direct access to your brain and then it allows for other senses to come into play.”
With Happinss, you have a location all around you, from the Northern Lights, to forests, cliffs and the like that you can look around. In many respects the process is akin to any experience in virtual reality; your mind takes some time to process the environment around you, but once you are there the experience is positively vivid, and once my eyes got used to the sensation of relaxing while wide open the effect was particularly potent, and even without the sensory environment that would form the basis of Happinss’ relaxation rooms, just trying the app relaxed me a great deal.
Happinss designed the experience to be modular, with a number of experiences, meditation and ambient music tracks available as well as others available for $1 per experience with monthly and yearly plans available as well. I have been promised by Happinss that dedicated Daydream and Gear VR versions will be released with full use of their respective controller within a couple of weeks.
Happinss have interest from a number of corporations because their VR meditation programme is “low cost and high impact”, with a presence in four continents and “hopefully” millions of households by the end of the year. There are grand plans afoot to create a multi-sensory wellness experience as technologies improve, involving biofeedback and haptic technology as Virtual Reality evolves from being a new technology to being the new norm.
It is fascinating to see VR applications that focus on relaxation, given that sensory overload is often the order of the day to really show the limits of what can be accomplished right now in VR. Having tried out a Virtual Reality-focused way of relaxing there is definitely a place for it in general wellness, meditation and reflection. Often it is difficult however to break an established way of doing things without providing a new method that is demonstrably better, and it will be interesting to see how things progress for Happinss VR in particular but also for how Virtual Reality can serve to relax and soothe, as well as scare and excite.