My New Hobby: VR

In October last year I visited my therapist for a regularly scheduled check in. Things had been a little stressful, so we talked about ways to relax.

“How do you quiet your busy mind?” she asked.

It’s a great question, and it’s not the first time she asked it. A few months prior when she asked it, my answers prompted her to recommend a meditation device that she had found some of her patients responded to well. So I’d borrowed a device from her to try out, and ultimately bought my own. That had worked very well for a while because it gave me the real time feedback I needed to stay in the zone and quiet my busy mind instead of just giving it more space to wind itself up.

I waved my hands. “Oh, you know, the usual,” I said. “Meditation. Walking.”

She nodded.

“But they’re not working particularly well at the moment,” I added.

Given that my therapist turned me onto the Muse device, I expected her to offer some sage advice about how to improve my meditation practice with it. Instead, she nodded again, and then asked a question I never thought I would hear come out of a therapist’s mouth: “Have you tried VR?”

Have I tried what now?

At the time, my impression of virtual reality was that it was yet another gaming platform, and relatively nascent. My incredibly limited personal experience with VR involved a cardboard frame, a mobile device, and a video of a roller coaster that I could not see very well. It was…underwhelming.

I knew there were commercial VR rooms cropping up with immersive higher fidelity experiences that I was certain would be far better than the home experience, but as far as I knew they were all in the shoot-at-things genre. I’m not into first person shooters: I don’t like violence and don’t have the reflexes for real-time games requiring lightning fast response times. I’d tried laser tag once back in the day and hated it, so I did not find the idea of a more immersive virtual war game experience even remotely appealing.

Further, in my personal life I tend to be a technology laggard. While I own the usual complement of electronic devices for someone in tech (two smart phones and a tablet plus a couple computers I use actively and a small stash of ancient laptops I need to clear off and recycle Some Day), that’s where the tech stops for me in my personal life. I want my home to be dumb. You are not going to find a Ring by our door or an Alexa in our living room, nor do I want connected light bulbs controlled by an app.

So VR? Yeah. Totally not my thing, I thought. 

Also not at all something I expected a therapist to suggest might help with mental health.

I explained all that to my therapist, and she shook her head. “It’s not what you think it is,” she said. And then she told me about studies in using VR to reduce chronic pain and thus reduce the need for pain medications. She told me about applications for play therapy for kids (a particular area of interest for her). And she told me that in general VR is such a hot field in medicine there’s a whole conference dedicated to it.

“Try swimming with dolphins,” she said. “I guarantee you that you’ll feel like you just took a 2 week vacation after 15 minutes.”

So I bought myself an Oculus Quest at her suggestion. And as I tweeted shortly after:

In my early days with the technology I was spending about an hour a day immersed in other realities. My therapist was right. A 15 minute session in the morning left me with the same kind of relaxed and ready-for-almost-anything feeling as a multi-day vacation.

So as I indicated in my previous post, now that I have some time on my hands I’m starting to experiment with creating content for VR. But those experiments, along with a list of the apps I’ve been enjoying, will have to be a subject for another post.

(Comments are still off for now.)