Is Virtual Reality The Future Of Wellness?

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Established brands and innovative startups are rushing to embrace high-tech concepts to transform consumer experiences, but with cost concerns and a growing digital backlash, will VR ever become a mainstream global wellness trend?

The idea of working out in a captivating visual environment has been gradually establishing itself since 2014 when Les Mills opened the world’s first immersive fitness studio at 24 Hour Fitness Super-Sport in Los Angeles. The concept space, which allows riders taking part in signature class The Trip to experience environments ranging from glaciers to futuristic spacescapes – and signalled the start of a movement by the brand to embrace high-tech fitness – now boasts immersive-format versions of eight of its classes. The Trip meanwhile, has grown its presence in specialist studios across the globe, from Tokyo to Moscow.

But while the larger brands seem to be making it work, boutique studios have struggled more with the concept. Imaxshift, an immersive spin studio in New York, went out of business in June 2017 after little more than a year of operation, following criticisms that its giant projections were “dizzying”. Part of the challenge is dealing with consumer expectations when the concept still varies in scope and quality, from a standalone 30ft screen at the front of the class at TMPL in New York to a 270° wraparound screen at Pure Fitness California Tower in Hong Kong.

Innovative startups are taking immersive exercise further and capitalising on the fast-growing global market for augmented and virtual reality headsets, which expanded by 25.5 percent in the second quarter of 2017, according to market research firm IDC. Sam Cole, Co-Founder of London-based FITXR, which launched a beta version of its first product offering BOXVR, in June 2017, sees individualised VR experiences as a natural evolution.

“Brands like Les Mills have realised overlaying synced visuals onto spin classes is a powerful way of making gyms less boring; providing that on an individual level is even more compelling,” he argues.

Young exercise equipment brands are also lining up with innovative machines designed to maximise the benefits of a VR workout. In January 2017, Boston-based VirZoom launched a  $399 exercise bike, while German startup Icaros launched a $10,000 machine offering users an experience designed to feel like flying.

Despite the price of such gadgets — as well as the VR headsets needed to make the most of them, with the Occulus Rift headset priced at $399 — are still beyond the reach of many mass-market consumers, Cole envisages healthy user growth will continue along a trajectory similar to that of successful gaming consoles like the the PS4. He sees the burgeoning community of users as a great opportunity.

“The way we see it at the moment, the current base, which is in the millions but not huge, allows us to validate our products within a small market before trying to drag people into VR who are completely new to it,” he explains.

Winning over consumers seems likely to be easier for firms with their sights set on Asia, which M&A advisory firm Digi-Capital predicts will account for 45 percent of the global market for VR headsets by 2021. In South Korea — where the government plans to invest $350m in VR infrastructure by 2020 — VR fitness looks set to gain traction in the education industry, after Oksu elementary school in Seoul became the first in the world to offer virtual reality gym classes to help enthuse students about exercise.

Elsewhere, perceptions that virtual reality is a gaming technology rather than one designed for serious fitness are seen as a roadblock to mass adoption. However, recent testing by the VR Health Institute, which estimated BOXVR users were burning upwards of 15 calories a minute, seems likely to help overturn such perceptions. Cole also argues that high-quality fitness-focused VR experiences could help luxury health clubs respond to increasing competition from low-cost 24/7 chains.

Is Virtual Reality The Future Of Wellness?

image: AR cycling

But while the use of the technology has been embraced by independent US health club The Fitness Loft in Ohio, FITXR is yet to finalise a deal with a UK operator despite positive sentiment from those Cole has spoken with – suggesting group fitness instructors need not fear for their jobs just yet.

Outside of the fitness industry, companies across a range of other wellness verticals are using experiential technology as a creative tool for brand building. In December 2016, Lipton created a 360-degree YouTube video to promote its new Magnificent Matcha tea, and organic beauty brand Rituals swiftly followed suit, creating a pop-up Moroccan hammam in its London and Belfast stores. The brand’s customers were given Samsung VR headsets to wear whilst receiving a scented hand massage.

And this October, GLORIOUS! Soups invited users to take part in a virtual reality mindfulness experience involving slowly stirring a pot of soup, to mark the relaunch of its range of Super Soups, explaining in a press release: “The idea behind it was to demonstrate the benefits of taking a few moments to be mindful, whatever you’re doing and wherever you are.”

Other mindfulness players are also experimenting with the immersive benefits of the technology, with a swathe of headset-compatible apps that promise to help users relax and overcome fears, as well as the Sydney-based Relax VR, which offers a product combining relaxing natural scenes with guided meditations. Yet the startup, like many other young companies working with VR, is bootstrapped, with venture capital interest largely limited to a small number of specialist funds. One of the biggest early-stage funders, The Venture Reality Fund, has invested in 17 startups but is yet to put money into a wellness-focused offering.

One possibility is that this reticence is a response to the growing number of voices pointing to technology addiction as the driver of unhappiness, with psychologist Jean Twenge arguing in a her new book ‘iGen’ that the ubiquity of the smartphone has lead to a generation of young people plagued by anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

Brazil’s Delete Institute, founded in 2013 to help those addicted to technological vices from video games to Facebook, has already treated over 800 suffers. With founders like Cole envisaging that the long-term trajectory of VR could see lighter headsets offering a sliding scale of augmented reality and virtual immersion options. For now, it seems the complex mixture of costs and benefits offered by VR means the technology’s future role in wellness is far from certain.

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