The first time Ralonda Dittmar went to Esqapes Immersive Relaxation, a new virtual reality spa, she was so relaxed exploring a beautiful garden, so captivated by the vivid imagery of rippling water and swaying branches, she thought that her 30-minute experience lasted for hours.
Dittmar, 48, had been stressed with work and constant travel, and needed some time for herself. So she drove to a nondescript office building in Los Angeles, chose her virtual world, and settled into a state-of-the-art massage chair for a full-body massage. The experience led her through a series of deep breathing exercises, and then left her to explore the “Asian palace garden” above a babbling brook. (She also fell into the best sleep she’d had in a long time.) “It really is an escape,” Dittmar says. “It was a mini-vacation.”
Esqapes, which opened in July 2019, is part of a new trend in wellness: virtual reality as a tool for deeper relaxation. There’s also Relax VR, which sells spas special virtual reality (VR) headsets preloaded with calming landscapes and guided meditations. Mindful Touch, from the Barcelona-based Natura Bisse, offers personalized VR spa experiences that encourage “thoughtful awareness.” Sure, it’s a play for tech-obsessed millennials, but is it more than just a gimmick? Can virtual reality actually help foster deeper mental wellness?
The virtual reality spa experience functions like a choose your own adventure. At Esqapes, customers have the choice of 11 different “experiences,” ranging from a beach on the Mediterranean to a cozy cabin with a crackling fire to a tropical retreat on the edge of a koi pond. As clients settle into a massage chair and put on the virtual reality headset, they’re led through deep breathing exercises. The world they’ve chosen appears lifelike in front of them. Birds fly past, palm trees sway gently in the wind, water ripples. A heat lamp is triggered in the tropical environments, simulating the warmth of the sun, and electric fans mimic a cool breeze. Each scenario also has specific scents — lavender, eucalyptus, cardamom —…