Sarah Hill was burning out, and she knew it.
Long nights working in TV newsrooms were beginning to take their toll. Tuning into police scanners and reporting on trauma had left her anxious and sleepless.
“Looking back on it, I see media as a diet,” said Hill, an MU Journalism School alumna. “I had too much bad stuff in my digital diet.”
She reached out to a longtime family friend, Jeff Tarrant — a fellow MU alum who is a doctor at the NeuroMeditation Institute in Eugene, Oregon.
The two came up with a plan. While it was not virtual reality, Tarrant designed a program to help reduce Hill’s stress and anxiety. She sat in front of a PC with electrodes glued to her head, immersed in a virtual scenario in which she had to control her breathing and brain waves to get the program to respond in a certain way.
It worked. Soon, she was sleeping again and having fewer panic attacks. The virtual scenario quieted her mind.
Hill was by no means alone in her struggle with anxiety, a mental health issue that affects a growing number of Americans. A report released in March 2018 by the American Psychiatric Association found that 40 percent of the 1,000 people surveyed said they were more anxious than they’d been the previous year.
Hill had an idea about how she might help millions of others like her cope with it.
That idea became Healium, a virtual and augmented reality platform that guides the user in meditations designed to bring a sense of calm and reduce stress.
Users of the app can synch their biometric information, like their heart rate or brain waves, through either Apple Watches or EEG headbands to control the various virtual landscapes the platform offers. The apps are catching on with users and will soon be offered to a perfect, captive market: airline passengers.
The woman behind the technology
Hill was introduced to augmented and virtual reality through her work in the newsroom several years ago.
“We were using Google Glass to livestream tours to a group of veterans who weren’t able to travel to see their memorials,” Hill said.
When she left her position at KOMU in 2012 and began working at Veterans United Network, she again came into contact with augmented and virtual reality, as if she and the technology were destined to be together.
“We noticed through AR, with Google Glass, and with VR, inside the Goggles, that it appeared to be affecting the veterans’ physiology,” Hill said. “They weren’t just watching this media — it was as if they were feeling it.”
After noticing how veterans’ bodies reacted to the virtual reality tours, Hill decided to get some real results and run brain tests on the effects on all people, not just veterans.
She once again reached out to Tarrant.
Hill asked him to study brain maps of people who have anxiety while they were immersed in nature-based virtual reality scenarios.
Results from the studies conducted over the past several years found that the virtual scenarios were actually affecting people’s breathing rates and shifting their brain patterns into quiet states.
Seeing the results, Hill began to dig deeper and study what caused the shifts. She began by asking herself two questions: First, how do virtual and augmented reality affect the user’s physiology? And second, can experiences be designed in a way to create an even better impact on the user?
The answer to these two questions: the Healium app.
Developing a guide
Hill decided to partner with Tarrant.
“I remember the experiences,” Hill said. “They were kind of boring. You had to keep this airplane above or below a certain threshold — and so if you quieted your mind, the airplane went down.”
Hill found herself making up stories to go along with what she was seeing on the screen.
“So that’s essentially what Healium is,” she said. “It’s Dr. Tarrant’s brain-based principles, combined with my stories and game design, to create something that was portable — you didn’t have to glue anything to your head, you didn’t have to have a PC — and it instantly made you feel like you were somewhere else.”
Tarrant was skeptical at first, but his background in psychology was well-suited to help her develop the app. Together, he and Hill developed stories that are compatible with augmented reality and virtual reality.
“A big part of my clinical work historically has been measuring that information (sweat gland activity in the skin, respiration and heart rate, and brain waves) and then feeding that back to somebody through either visual or auditory signals so that you can understand what’s happening internally,” Tarrant said.
There are two forms of the augmented reality stories, both of which project interactive computer-generated images into a person’s real-world surroundings through a smartphone. Synching to an Apple Watch, Healium uses the heart rate monitor to allow the user to control the stories.
One of the augmented reality stories focuses on the hatching of butterflies from chrysalises.
Using augmented reality, a tree with chrysalises on it appears right in front of you. You can adjust a threshold you don’t want your heart rate to go over. The longer your heart rate stays under the set threshold, the more monarch butterflies will hatch.
If you keep your heart rate under the threshold for a few minutes, you are soon surrounded by the brilliant oranges and blacks of virtual monarch butterflies.
“You’re able to use it as a remote control to become more self-aware of your biometric information, because chances are you’ve never seen either your heart rate or your brain patterns live, in near real time,” Hill said.
In Healium’s virtual reality stories, the overall impact is greater. Combined with sounds, the stories are powered by brain waves, which are measured by the EEG headbands and a virtual reality headset.
“And that’s what makes Healium unique,” she said. “It allows you to see those feelings and to know that what you think about has a direct impact on raising or lowering that heart rate or raising or lowering those brain patterns.”
However, Hill wants people to know that Healium is not meant to be a replacement for any psychotropic medication or cognitive behavioral therapy.
“Obviously, the best thing you can do is to talk to a professional counselor,” Hill said. “Healium is just one tool in your toolkit.”
A new kind of meditation
Healium is one of the few meditation apps that are ahead of the curve, Tarrant said. What makes it special is that it is more focused and less generic in its instructions.
“Not to pick on any other particular practices, but a lot of different meditation strategies, they give you sort of generic instructions,” Tarrant said. “‘Sit. Close your eyes, watch your breath.’ Well, that’s really hard, and, for instance, somebody with ADHD is probably not going to be super successful at that.”
Tarrant has studied four different styles of meditation: focus, mindfulness, open heart and quiet mind. The last two have been included in the app. Focus is scheduled for release on the app any day now, Tarrant said, and he is still working out the logistics of adding meditations for mindfulness.
“We’re taking the four categories and creating virtual reality experiences that facilitate those states,” he said. “It’s an eyes-open meditation.”
Tarrant says it’s all about taking advantage of the brain. The brain believes what it sees, so if you change what the brain sees, the body will also change.
“It’s neuromeditation; it’s just in virtual reality,” he said.
Taking the tech one step further
On the business side of things, Hill works with a core team of seven people with all the skills building a VR and AR app requires. The team includes the former chief of gaming at Google and award-winning cinematographers.
“(The cinematographers) go all over to shoot some of the footage, either in real world or computer-generated worlds,” Hill said.
Ideas come from all over, including from users who suggest what they would like to see. The team can create anything the mind can come up with.
“We had a chronic pain patient who told us that his wounds are where the light enters him,” she said. “So we created an experience where the light actually comes out of you, if you’re thinking a certain way.”
The VR experience requires a VR headset, and if you want biometric data, like your brain waves, that requires an EEG headband. The VR software is $29 a month for a single user license. An initial subscription includes 14 VR experiences, with the Healium team adding a new piece of content every 60 days.
Healium is growing, and Hill is excited about it. She said the AR platform had experienced more than 1000% growth within the last week, and the VR platform had already had more than 40,000 downloads.
“Healium is used worldwide in areas of stress, pain and trauma,” she said.
She also just signed a licensing deal that will put Healium on 20 airlines to de-stress passengers on long-haul flights.
One thing that makes the app work is how dedicated her team is to continually making it better for users, Hill said. She spent a better part of this summer at the Apple Entrepreneur Camp, a program designed to help app businesses created by women.
With a common goal of getting Healium widely used in all aspects of life, Hill and Tarrant are hopeful for the future. Hill would like to see Healium used in more areas of stress. She also hopes it will be available in fitness centers, like gyms and yoga studios.
“You know, when cellphones came out, we didn’t think everyone was going to walk around with a cellphone, and now everybody has a cellphone,” Tarrant said. “I think it’s going to be one of those things, that everybody’s got a VR headset.”