The verdict is in, and it appears artificial intelligence (AI) isn’t only going to change the way that we bank, travel, grow produce, manufacture goods, operate businesses and listen to music – it will also help us improve our physical and mental well-being via AI consultants and virtual reality.
That’s right, if you already thought our world was becoming a little too science fiction-oriented and reminiscent of scarily accurate 80’s sci-fi films, sorry but it seems that things are about to get a lot weirder. We are about to go from wearable technology helping guide us toward better fitness and health, to embracing virtual reality experiences to benefit from wellness experiences.
Professor Marc Cohen – a medical practitioner and publisher of more than 90 peer–reviewed articles, author of over 20 book chapters and editor of 8 books on holistic health – is one of Australia’s pioneers of integrative and holistic medicine and has recently come out with his predictions for wellness trends that we will see in 2020. Among them is the growing popularity of AI consultants and virtual wellness, both of which will change the wellness world through virtual experiences that will take patients to exotic locations – both real and imaginary. Instead of visiting a spa or destination physically, virtual reality will allow spas and wellness centers to create customised experiences and treatments in the VR environment that can be likened to forest therapy or yoga retreats. These augmented experiences combined with real world treatments will be customised for each and every customer, according to the data that specialised AI wellness consultants will gather, including genetic, microbiome, biosensor, psychometric, geographical exposure and social-connection data.
It’s a whole new world of wellness. Well, according to Dr Marc it will be. He isn’t alone in his predictions though: experts from the Global Wellness Summit (GWS), an international organization made up of spa and wellness industry leaders, also recently made forecasts based on interviews, keynotes and debates with doctors, academics and executives in the wellness market. Among their predictions also sits that of the growing popularity of wearable tech and virtual reality therapy (such as meditation headsets that measure your heart rate, and wearable biosensors that detect physiological symptoms like stress and anxiety), as digital solutions to our increasingly demanding schedules and worsening mental health issues.
In fact, virtual reality has already been used for decades by therapists as a means of treating people with mental health issues, including stress, relationship issues, fears and phobias, depression and other disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) is an effective treatment that has enabled therapists to treat patients in a safe and controlled manner. But high costs have prevented widespread adoption of this type of tool – until now.
Take Bravemind, for example. A VR system worn by patients suffering PTSD and controlled by a clinician, which immerses the subject in surroundings similar to their traumatic experience, was launched in the U.S. in 2004 after a paper was published in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that many veterans were coming home with symptoms of PTSD. Data from the clinical trial showed that using Bravemind led to “both statistically and clinically meaningful reductions in PTSD, anxiety and depression symptoms”, with seven of nine participants seeing a clinically significant reduction in symptoms after completing the Bravemind treatment, and with all participants showing improvements in PTSD following the trial. Using virtual reality for improved mental and physical wellbeing is already happening, and has been happening for some time now.
So do I see virtual wellness taking off? In a weird way, I actually can.
I myself am constantly struggling with anxiety, stress, and the desire to escape and detox from reality. What I would give for a 10 day yoga retreat on the breezy beaches of Thailand, or a meditation and mindfulness escape in the Sri Lankan jungle. What wouldn’t I give? Sadly for me, I wouldn’t be prepared to actually pay for those experiences. A lucky few can afford such luxury, though if the cost of experiencing that same escape and benefitting from that same sense of mental invigoration was just a fraction of the price, with the same results, I would seriously consider it. I would happily part with a couple of hundred dollars to feel the breeze on my shoulders and be sat overlooking the stunning Indian ocean, meditating alongside one of the digital world’s most fabulous instructors – from my local spa salon.
Much like Dr Marc, I don’t see virtual reality wellness tech ever replacing the real thing, but it will certainly fill a niche gap, especially when it comes to mental health.