Learn how virtual reality is changing the mental health space—and how to DIY your own at-home VR spa night.
Picture this: You’re seated directly in the middle of a koi pond. Fish swirl in the sparkling water below you, and you hear macaws call from the air above. As the fronds of palm trees sway in the wind, you feel the breeze on your skin. Orange, lemongrass, and lavender fragrances waft through the air. All the while, you receive a full-body massage.
Down the hall, someone else is getting a massage, too, but this person is in a wintry cabin in the woods. There, the fireplace crackles and radiates warmth, and big chunks of snow fall outside. Smells of cardamom and cinnamon fill the room.
No, these aren’t body treatments at the Willy Wonka Spa; they’re two of more than a dozen experiences at Esqapes Immersive Relaxation in Los Angeles, which uses virtual reality (VR) headsets to combine artificial environments with real-life massages. It’s part of an emerging trend of using VR software in mindfulness and meditation.
With a background in games and interactive development, Esqapes CEO and founder Micah Jackson took part in a VR training-and-development program a few years back. “I started doing other projects and was working on some games and other things,” says Jackson. “One day, I was walking and the idea of the massage chair—it was like an epiphany, like a ray of light—just popped into my head.” Jackson and his wife got a massage chair for their living room, and he got to prototyping his virtual relaxation experiences. He opened Esqapes to the SoCal public in July 2019.
“With a traditional massage, my mind is still racing. One of the things about being surrounded by a virtual world is that it gives your mind something to focus on.”—Micah Jackson, CEO of Esqapes Immersive Relaxation
During a 30-minute Esqapes session (for $35), an Oculus Rift S headset transports you to the setting of your choice (options include a Moroccan resort at twilight, an underwater cavern, and even outer space), and the software triggers aromatherapy, fans, and infrared heat lamps to create additional sensations. Beyond the obvious tech stuff, one of the biggest differences with Esqapes’ massages compared to others is the lack of a masseuse. Here, the kneading comes courtesy of what Jackson refers to as “the Rolls-Royce of massage chairs,” which helps keep the treatments inexpensive and accessible.
According to Jackson, VR provides an escape that clients might not find through a standard massage. “Sometimes, with a traditional massage—and I can attest to this—I can enjoy the massage and I’m enjoying the treatment, but my mind is still racing and I’m still thinking about other things,” he says. “One benefit of being surrounded by a world that is sort of this living, breathing virtual world is that it gives your mind something to focus on.” An alpine scene, for example, rather than your weekend to-do list.
Clinical research suggests that VR could help people relax, according to Albert “Skip” Rizzo, Ph.D., the director of medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies in Los Angeles. Studies have shown time and again that, through distraction, VR reduces pain during treatments like burn-wound care and that VR-exposure therapy can help treat anxiety disorders. In a study published in 2017 in the journal PLOS One, after 44 people used a VR helmet to float down a computer-generated river and listen to instructions at a mindfulness conference, they reported higher-than-average states of relaxation and lower-than-average feelings of sadness, anger, and anxiety.
Of course, Rizzo points out that “spas are commercial entities,” so they have a financial incentive for providing something cool like VR to get you in the door. But he doesn’t see harm in VR treatments. “You’ve got to do the scientific research if you’re going to make radical claims,” he says. “Now a spa saying, ‘We offer VR to make your spa experience more enjoyable,’ that’s benign, and some people may find it beneficial.”
Jackson is currently looking into opportunities to license his Esqapes technology to spas, hotels, resorts, and cruise ships. In the meantime, you don’t have to fly to L.A. to give VR relaxation a go. “I’ve got an app where you’re floating down a virtual Colorado River to the Grand Canyon,” says Rizzo. “It’s all 3D graphics, but it looks cool.” And though he’s never been to that national park, he says, “it might even look better than the real thing!”
How To Do Your Own At-Home VR Spa Night Right
Test-Drive a VR Headset
First things first: Make sure you enjoy the VR experience. “Some people don’t groove on it; they get motion-sick,” says Albert Rizzo of the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies. Test a headset at a store before buying. If it’s for you, Rizzo likes the Oculus Go (from $149).
Find an App
Search “meditation” or “mindfulness” in the Oculus app store to see just how many options are out there. One example is the free Guided Meditation VR app, which has more than 100 environments, over 20 hours of guided meditations, and 50-plus audio tracks.
Level Up With Aromatherapy
Can’t build your own software to trigger heat lamps, fans, and fragrance diffusers like Micah Jackson of Esqapes Immersive Relaxation did? Just augment your VR with essential oils. Buy a sampler set, Jackson says, so you can find the scents that work for you.
By Alison Goldman | Illustration by Katherine Streeter
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Reveal, Drew & Jonathan’s lifestyle magazine.