Virtual reality can be a supportive tool for people with disabilities or anxiety, or who just need help getting up and moving.
It’s Sunday evening, and I’m sitting with my legs crossed on the bottom of the sea. My fingers poke a nearby turquoise anemone, and it reflexively tucks into itself. A crab off to my left scuttles into a cave. My breath catches in my throat as a smack of vibrant pink jellyfish come into view. It’s gorgeous. I could stay here forever.
But then I hear a loud alarm ringing, and the moment is broken. Meditation time is up; back to the real world I go. I remove the headset and start downstairs for dinner, feeling renewed and refreshed.
This has become a weekend tradition, one of many I’ve integrated into my life over the past year. A proud introvert, I was surprised to learn that I don’t do as well in quarantine as I anticipated I would. I longed for social interactions after merely a month. I missed going to the beach on Saturday mornings to play in the tide pools. A stationary bike at home wasn’t anywhere near as satisfying as my gym. Seasonal depression sank its talons deeper than ever. On top of it all came a crushing anxiety, one that I’d never experienced before. It wasn’t long before “self-quarantine” orders became I-don’t-want-to-leave-the-couch orders.
Enter virtual reality.
Just as the lethargy bordered on clinical, my husband brought home the Valve Index, and he excitedly pitched how much fun this new toy would be. “This is the VR we’ve been waiting for,” he said, bouncing on his toes in anticipation.
“This is much better than those,” my husband promised, as he hurried to set it up for me. After a quick tutorial, I was fitting the headset on.
Suddenly, my room was gone and I was in an ultramodern house with hardwood floors and cement walls. Sliding glass doors opened out onto a patio. I could see the sun beating down onto tall pines and mountains outside. I heard birds chirping, a breeze swaying through the leaves. It was breathtaking.
I took a few steps toward the door and the view got sharper, the sounds closer. A few more and BAM! I hit my shin on the chair. My brain slammed back into reality, reminding me that I wasn’t actually in the scene I was looking at. I had to chuckle at myself for being so completely transported so quickly. I was hooked.
It wasn’t long before I began looking forward to my VR sessions. There were so many options of places to explore, things to see, people to meet, and some cardio fitness choices too. This was more than playing games. This was therapy.
Marketed and sold as entertainment systems, VR is quickly proving valuable in medicine, from MS to anxiety treatments. While the validity of the term “VR therapy” is still being debated, my journey led me to explore the emerging therapeutic tools that VR has to offer.
Meditation and Mindfulness
With so much negative news permeating our lives, my anxiety had reached an all-time high. I needed something to aid in keeping me calm. A study by University College London found that 10 to 20 minutes of daily mindful meditating can have some remarkable benefits for your well-being—but if you’re like me, you may find it difficult to sit in quietness with your own breath. Some fantastic alternatives can be found in VR.
My all-time favorite place to be is Reef Migration, where I spend time with corals and jellyfish. Part of theBlu underwater series from Wevr, the graphics are wonderful, the sounds are peaceful, and there’s enough passive action to keep my brain entertained. The best part? I’m not wet or cold, and I don’t need to go up for air.
There’s the aptly named Guided Meditation VR, a classic way to get in your daily practice. It helps having pleasing scenes to peruse with my eyes open, while still sitting quietly and focusing on my breath.
If I’m feeling particularly fidgety while still craving mindfulness, I’ll turn to my Index SteamVR base settings. My default “home,” called Summit Pavilion, is the aforementioned modern house in the mountains. I can walk around, interact with butterflies, or just train my gaze out into the distance.
For days I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll choose more recognizable places to meditate in, such as Dr. Who’s TARDIS, Rick and Morty’s garage, or the Dunder Mifflin office. Being able to virtually travel to places that are personally fun to me, with such fully realized backdrops, has transformed my meditation experience from resistance to enjoyment.
It’s no shock that stay-at-home orders can leave you feeling, well, stuck at home. Two of my treasured pastimes are traveling and hiking. Virtual reality has an answer for that too.
A quick search through the Steam store led me to find some impressive virtual maps of faraway locales. I could hang out on Castlerock Beach in Australia, traipse the foggy terrain of Iceland, even see the art of the Fushimi Inari shrine in Japan. These downloads are expansive, giving me plenty of space to teleport or use free locomotion as I explored, quelling my desires for real travel in a time where that’s not an option.
In lieu of traveling this past holiday season, I found solace in trips down memory lane instead. With Google’s VR version of Google Earth, I virtually returned to my hometown, skimming the streets and places of my childhood. This is great for any past trip—“flying” around Six Flags, the Grand Canyon, or Disneyland—mentally reliving the memories as I switched from aerial views to street views and back again. Simply being able to see these places in VR helped me cope with the nostalgia and longing to go somewhere. All without ever having to leave my chair.
Keeping up with socializing during a pandemic has forced people to turn to their devices for human connection more than ever. But FaceTime and Zoom keep my loved ones in pancake mode, trapped inside my screens. I’d tried VRChat, but felt overwhelmed with the customizability.
Hence Rec Room, a cross-platform remedy for my needs. I entered Rec Room after a friend kept insisting it was the greatest thing ever. “Come fight Jumbotron with me,” he’d say, but I was too nervous about joining a new online hangout to try it out.
Until I finally did, mostly out of sheer curiosity. And here’s the thing—it’s fun.
“Rec Room is the place people are going after school, after work, to spend time with friends,” says Nick Fajt, CEO of Rec Room. “It’s not just a game. It’s a destination, like a park, a restaurant, or a stadium.”
I immediately fell in love with the basic, oval-shaped androgynous human forms. Customizable in clothes, hair, and facial features only, the minimal design allows more of the actual person behind it to shine. I recognize the subtle head and arm movements of my individual friends, making it feel as though we truly are in the same room together.
Plus, there’s always something to do while hanging out. There’s bowling and darts for quieter evenings, or active adventures like Quest for the Golden Trophy and the Rise of Jumbotron, which puts our group into a nine-chapter quest, complete with rewards.
“We see Rec Room as a place where people can meet new people, hang out with old friends, or do both in the same session,” says Fajt. Virtually, the social distancing gap feels a bit more closed.
Beat Saber made exercising with a headset wildly popular, with some going as far as to add light weights for additional fitness benefits. It’s incredibly fun for such basic graphics, and anything that mixes pop music with light sabers is destined for success. Yet it can be repetitive, especially once you memorize all the moves.
So I turned to Thrill of the Fight! boxing (not recommended with other people in the room). It’s a more full-body workout, involving your arms and legs to compete in realistic strategies and fight choreographies. A few rounds in and my heart rate is up, sweat sticking to my back. It’s not ideal to sweat into your headset, but regular cleaning and care will keep your equipment working just fine. I found a built-in lens to help with fitness games, rather than wearing my glasses.
While it’s not easy to be outside (or inside!) the world right now, VR allows the small to feel big, the implausible to feel possible, and that really helps. One thing’s for sure, I’ll happily reach for my headset whenever I need it most.
VR allows the small to feel big, the implausible to feel possible, and that really helps.Photograph: Kilito Chan/Getty Images