Can virtual reality pods be used to treat stress

19 April 2017 • 4 min reading time


“Four years ago, I had a burnout. Spending time at the beach restored a sense of calm,” says Fred Galstaun, an infrared sauna dealer. “Something happened that made me feel better. But what was that exactly? Was it the temperature, the sunlight, the sound of the sea, the breeze? These elements combined to create a multi-sensory rhythm. As a dealer in infrared saunas I am used to thinking ‘inside the box’. So it occurred to me that each of these individual factors could be imitated and then combined inside a pod to create an environment in which people could relax at home. This led me to set up SENSIKS.’’


Building an infrared sauna is one thing. Building a reality pod to create a realistic experience by stimulating all the senses is something else entirely. So Mr Galstaun asked other specialist SMEs and the Delft University of Technology to help him develop the first prototype. Fred Galstaun notes that “The very first prototype only used light and sound. At that time, we lacked the know-how to create a truly multi-sensory experience. Nor did we know how to use biofeedback, involving heart rate and brain waves for example, to monitor people’s reactions to these stimuli.”


Mr Galstaun came into contact with TNO staff at a trade fair, and this meeting led to the idea of creating a Technology Cluster. “As part of the Technology Cluster, TNO held five workshops, in which they shared a lot of their knowledge with us. We had come prepared with lists of goals and issues. What type of hardware would we need to measure bodily responses? And how are these responses related to the level of stress a person is experiencing, or to their emotions? We also wanted to know what it is about the natural environment that makes it so relaxing, and how we could capture a particular scent. The advantage of calling TNO in is that our product starts life with a solid scientific basis” says Fred Galstaun.

“A joint project with Radboud University is attempting to determine whether the pods are effective in treating stress, in trauma rehabilitation, and in dementia”


Armed with this new knowledge from TNO, the team pushed ahead with the reality pod project. SENSIKS launched the Sensory Reality POD in late 2016. The pods have a modular design, and are made from sustainable materials such as bamboo. Everything is locally produced. The smart use of materials, technology and design, ensures that the pods are affordable. The pods use sound, smell, temperature, air currents, vibration, taste, and light frequencies to create highly realistic experiences. Biometric sensors monitor the occupant’s reactions to an experience by measuring their Heart Rate Variability (HRV), skin conductance, and respiration. Are people really more relaxed when they leave the pod? In this way, the reality pod can gauge the user’s feelings and respond accordingly.


The new reality pod has even given birth to a new product category: Sensory Reality. Mr Galstaun adds that “Your world of experience involves input from all of your senses. Your brain then knits this together to create your own personal reality. So each experience reflects the personal characteristics of the experiencer. Sensory Reality is a new product category, which involves mimicking perceptions and experiences. In this way, you can share your experiences with the rest of the world. So it’s a kind of Instagram, but with experiences added. The reality pod also makes it possible to undergo new experiences, that reduce stress or evoke memories.”


The potential uses of the Sensory Reality POD are by no means limited to the home. Fred Galstaun recalls that “After the launch, there was widespread interest from many different sectors”. “Tests are currently under way to see whether these pods can enhance the quality of life of people with intellectual disabilities.” Each week for the next three months, 25 subjects with intellectual disabilities (from the Philadelphia Zorg Foundation) will test one of our reality pods. TNO will help the Foundation to measure these subjects’ hormonal responses. Will it be possible to establish any links? Researchers will try to find out whether emoticons can be used to improve interactions with patients who are unable to express their emotions by facial expressions. A joint project with Radboud University is attempting to determine whether the pods are effective in treating stress, in trauma rehabilitation, and in dementia. One particular experience was the subject of a presentation to the Ministry of Defence. It may be useful in the treatment of traumatized soldiers suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

“It is also possible to undergo new experiences, that reduce stress or evoke memories”


Mr Galstaun also sees great opportunities for small and medium-sized business in the entertainment industry. “You can use these pods to create very realistic experiences at home. This could be commercially interesting to anyone involved in developing games, for example. Then there is the marketing industry. An advertisement that stimulates all the senses will have a much greater impact. The possibilities are endless, and we have barely begun to explore all of the potential applications.”


One of the many ways in which TNO supports innovative SMEs is through knowledge transfer in the area of technology. A Technology Cluster is typical of projects in which TNO’s existing knowledge is transferred to a group of at least five SMEs. This enables businesspeople to easily acquire knowledge about the available options, and to get straight to work on the technology in question. “The Technology Cluster established for the development of the reality pod is a good example of how TNO’s knowledge helps to answer the collective questions raised by groups of SMEs, to achieve innovation”, says project leader Liselotte Kroon.


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