Despite having existed for many decades, virtual reality has recently found prominence in mainstream markets. Virtual reality, or VR, has been incorporated into medical training, military training, video gaming, and now, spas. While the integration has been slow, spas around the globe have begun using VR for a variety of treatments.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” says Josh Farkas, creator of Guided Meditation VR. During a particularly cold winter working in Chicago, Farkas’s team began experimenting with ways to bring the beach and warmth to Illinois. After developing VR prototypes of warm environments, the team quickly discovered they felt much better after using it. Acknowledging a real need to escape from society, they continued to expand the technology and developed an app for direct consumer use called Guided Meditation VR. Since its conception, over 750 people and a dozen spas such as Kohler Waters Spa (multiple locations) have begun utilizing this technology. “It's been awesome to watch as the technology has advanced,” says Farkas. “All the headsets that we ship out are fully standalone headsets. It's very easy to use and super simple to set up.”
According to Guided Meditation’s website, over 65 unique studies have found virtual reality to decrease anxiety and increase relaxation. Guided Meditation VR has analyzed the biometrics of its users to find which environments have the best relaxing effect on users. The company has found that users are most drawn to the environment that most drastically differs from their own. The software currently provides 27 different environments with over 500 different meditation spots. In the next six months, Guided Mediation VR hopes to create 70 more environments, focusing on providing different environments for more specific audiences and translate the meditations into various languages.
Micah Jackson was similarly struck with inspiration when he was working on a VR film called “Where Angels Meet,” with a heavenly garden scene. “I would just sit in that environment with my headset at my desk, just zoning out. I wondered if other people would like to do this because I found it very relaxing and very peaceful,” says Jackson. While having never managed a spa before, Jackson was an avid spa-goer and thought the massage chair would be the perfect place to have a relaxing VR experience. In March of 2019, Jackson began creating Esqapes Immersive Relaxation, a new VR-inspired spa, which opened in Los Angeles in September.
Each Esqapes client wears the VR googles and is transported to a new environment while seated in a Dream Wave Massage chair for a 30 minute session. The client has a choice of 11 environments, including Hidden Spring, Tropical Retreat and the most popular Moroccan Twilight. The massage room incorporates sensory components to increase the immersion including heat lamps and fans, customized to each unique environment.
During its first few months, Esqapes has received an overwhelmingly positive response. For many, Esqapes provides a great alternative to a traditional massage because it offers the same degree of relaxation without having to undress. Going forward, Jackson hopes to expand to multiple cities across the United States.
VR can also be used to put spa-goers into the right mindset prior to treatments. Natura Bissé (multiple locations) has developed “The Mindful Touch,” an eight-minute abstract virtual reality video played for clients, accompanied by massage, before diving into the treatment. The video is designed to calm the mind and allow the individual to be in the present moment. Throughout the video a mindfulness voice talks the client through different points of the body and continues as the treatment begins. For repeat customers, a landscape video similar to those of Guided Meditation VR and Esqapes is available, although many say that the abstract video always offers a new experience.
Natura Bissé created “The Mindful Touch” after the idea was conceptualized in 2015 by Joaquín Serra, advisor and director of institutional relations at Natura Bissé and the technology was debuted two years later. “The Mindful Touch” is currently available the Trellis, Nobu and Nemacolin locations. In the remaining locations, Natura Bissé begins each treatment with body alignment, priming the body through rhythmic touches, which they feel is an essential part of the process. Even when a client is late, this aspect is not sacrificed. Natura Bissé foresees the VR technology replacing body alignment in all of their locations.
While spas serve as a central hub for wellness, technology has begun to allow those seeking relaxation to achieve peace within their own home in an affordable way. Guided Meditation VR’s technology is also working with children’s hospitals, chemotherapy patients, and those struggling with PTSD. “I think we live in a world of stress and pain, and despite all the technology that we have around us, most of the technology helps make that worse,” says Farkas. "I think using virtual reality as a way to make people have a better day is just amazing.”