The early promise of virtual reality (VR) was vast: We would be transported to new worlds and live in alternate realities. While scientists and programmers have been investigating the possibilities of VR since the 1960s, it's only in the last few years that the technology started to gain mainstream traction, with VR applications spanning from education to real estate.
Australian startup Relax VR is looking to bring VR into high-pressure corporate environments to relieve occupational stress -- a significant contributor to mental and physical illness, as well as lack of workplace productivity.
Founded by Eddie Cranswick and Sourabh Jain in January 2016, Relax VR is a mobile meditation application compatible with Google's Cardboard and Daydream, as well as Samsung's Gear VR headsets.
The application, which was launched in the iOS and Android app stores in Q2 2016, virtually transports users to tranquil locales of their choosing -- from beaches in Portugal to the Great Ocean Road in Australia -- and immerses them in 360-degree videos. A soothing voice is overlaid onto music to guide the user.
The goal of the application is to allow users to divert their attention inward and teach them to self-manage their stress.
Cranswick, who is based out of Fishburners' coworking space in Ultimo, Sydney, told ZDNet that immersion and presence play an important role when combining meditation techniques with virtual reality for stress management. As such, delivering the right user experience from the moment the user opens the application is paramount to Relax VR's efficacy, Cranswick said.
The startup recently appointed Madrid-based clinical psychologist and VR researcher Ivan Alsina Jurnet as its chief scientist to conduct research and measure the real-world impact of Relax VR.
Jain, who is a yoga and meditation teacher, said the evidence collected by Jurnet will be core to capturing the corporate market, which is a focus for the startup this year.
"There's some research that indicates VR is actually more effective at relaxation than traditional cognitive behavioural therapy. It's a great tool for relaxation and we have science to back that up now," Jain said.
Cranswick noted that selling to corporates is very different to selling to consumers. After the initial discussion, it can take months to progress through the approvals process, which can be challenging for startups taking the B2B approach, he admitted.
But the B2B approach is particularly lucrative for the Relax VR, the founders said. In 2016, the startup was focused predominantly on consumer adoption, but is now in talks with corporations about integrating Relax VR into their employee wellness programs. Pilot programs are currently being organised, though the founders could not disclose further details at the time of speaking to ZDNet.
"We're looking to deliver a structured relaxation program that employees in high-stress environments can sign up to. Corporate wellness is something that we think is a very valid use case for Relax VR," Cranswick said. "But we need to approach it the best way possible. In B2B, it's very important to provide something that's evidence-based, to make sure we've got data to back our [proposition]."
In addition to seeing consumer adoption across a range of global markets outside of Australia including the US, the UK, Germany, Japan, and South Korea, Jain said Relax VR has captured the attention of massage chair manufacturers that are looking to integrate VR headsets to their chairs, as well as companies servicing hospitals.
"We're keeping an eye on how VR is used in hospitals for patient care, especially in the US because hospitals there are generally more advanced when it comes to technology adoption. Once virtual reality headsets are rolled out in hospitals, there will be a massive opportunity for us," said Cranswick.
"It's a great use case, because we'd be able to transport people confined to their beds -- and in many cases, in a lot of pain and experiencing anxiety as well -- to somewhere peaceful. Hospitals don't usually provide a good experience so I think VR has a lot of power to keep people uplifted and keep their minds active."
Relax VR is not the only company to recognise the potential of virtual reality in health settings. In December 2016, Australian health insurer Medibank launched an immersive VR experience for Australian hospitals on Google Daydream, in collaboration with a group of neuropsychologists at Melbourne-based VR developers Liminal.
The "Joy" experience, which was designed entirely in 3D using Google's Tilt Brush, provides hospital patients with a virtual experience to attempt to relieve loneliness and isolation, particularly for long-stay patients with restricted mobility.
Victorian-startup Build VR also recently launched its Solis VR unit, a Gear VR handset that features video scenarios to trigger positive emotions for dementia patients, even for those in the later stages who are barely responsive.
Solis VR users start in a computer generated atrium in front of a wall with five paintings, with each one reflecting a VR experience. When the user looks at a painting, a 360-degree video begins, which could be of anything ranging from scuba diving, canoeing, or a trip to Bali. The experiences offer a distraction when dementia patients are experiencing boredom or displaying repetitive behaviour.
In the future, Relax VR will look to integrate biofeedback systems that measure the physiological aspects that are related to stress, such as body temperature and heart rate variability. By collecting biofeedback changes in real-time, users will have a greater understanding of not only their stress patterns, but also the impact Relax VR is having on their stress patterns over time.
"I'm quite excited about seeing where wearables can be integrated into the experiences. Being able to measure stress indicators and providing that data to users would give them a holistic picture of how the relaxation is affecting them over a period of time," Cranswick said.
While Relax VR is not the only meditation application in the VR world, Jain and Cranswick believe their competitive advantage is their domain expertise.
"I'm a meditation teacher. We now have a clinical psychologist. We have a strong understanding of the content behind relaxation, what helps people relax. Whereas what we see with our competitors is that they tend to have more expertise in virtual reality, and they're kind of jumping on the meditation bandwagon as part of exploring what they can do with VR," Jain said.
"[Their products are] generally not as effective in relaxing users, even though they might be more entertaining."
Relax VR has been applying to accelerator programs and was accepted into one in San Francisco. However, the terms that were put forth by the accelerator were a little too far from ideal, the founders said.
"The whole application process was a good learning experience and it was also good validation for us -- they thought we had potential. But at the stage that we applied, it was better off for us to not take that opportunity at that time," Jain said.
Trevor Townsend, managing director at Startupbootcamp Melbourne, believes the excitement towards technologies such as virtual reality will fizzle out this year.
"Technologies such as Internet of Things, virtual reality, and augmented reality will start to enter the trough of disillusionment in 2017," Townsend told ZDNet earlier this year. "They have been much hyped, and although our industry will be working long and hard to make the technology vision come true, the overshoot of expectations and the reality of what is actually possible and the difficulties of delivering the vision will dampen the enthusiasm for these topics."
Townsend also believes VR and AR will be solutions looking for problems.
"Like the ill-fated 3D TV; people will be slow to adopt such technology [and] that means they need to drastically alter the way they consume entertainment. Immersive experiences will arrive, but probably still not in the way we have envisioned," Townsend said.
Meanwhile, Cranswick believes the VR space is moving faster than it meets the eye.
"I attend a lot of VR events in Australia and I've seen this space move quite quickly over the last year in terms of the general public interest. Enterprise applications of VR are driving a lot of the early adoption, but I think consumer-wise, there have been some big pushes from the likes of Samsung and Google," Cranswick said.
"There's still an element of education that's required for the general market to understand virtual reality. It's a very experiential medium, so you need to try it, it needs to be in more retail stores. A lot of companies need to get the demonstrations happening in greater numbers. Getting people to try it is going to drive adoption. Usually, when someone has tried VR they understand it straight away."
Relax VR is currently a paid app on iOS, Android, and a freemium app on Samsung Gear VR. The monetisation model for corporate customers will be different, though nothing has been finalised yet.
The startup is also planning to raise capital later this year.