“You should try to leave your house. You should try to get out there and meet people. I mean, you could go on a date or take a walk in the park. Anything will help,” says David, a young guy with a shaved head, purple painted lips, and smokey eye makeup. I had just told him I’d been feeling really sad today, which was true. The advice, however, was strange. I don’t know that dating has ever eased anyone’s depression, and besides, I’m married. But then again, I was taking advice from a bot.
David is a virtual man in a virtual world built by Sensorium, a company founded by Russian billionaire and one-time Brooklyn Nets owner, Mikhail Prokhorov. The company is registered in the Cayman Islands, but its operations are spread across 10 global offices. It’s preparing to launch its first virtual world, dubbed Motion, early next year. There will be online raves with live DJ sets, virtual bars, artificially intelligent characters to talk to, and meditation experiences. Think Burning Man as a role playing game. The company’s main pitch is that it provides immersive digital experiences, but it also promises to be a reprieve from the harsh edges of real life.
“The world of Motion began as a stage production of dance shows, but as we went deeper into the concept of this environment and what we can do in virtual reality, we realized its potential for meditation, for creativity, and self improvement practices,” says Ivan Nikitin, product director at Sensorium. “Virtual reality in general opens up great potential in expanding meditation practices that aren’t possible in real life.”
The rush is on to develop the metaverse, an immersive digital reality. In September, Facebook announced it was investing $50 million into building out the metaverse, and a month later, it changed its name to Meta, a branded commitment to its belief in social virtual reality. While in theory you can do everything in the metaverse that you can do in real-life, it’s not totally clear yet why you would want to. Outside of gaming, training, and very niche collaborative work, people don’t have a good reason to strap a screen to their face. But a few companies like Sensorium see an opportunity to lure people to the metaverse as a reprieve from modern life. They say they can provide relaxation and companionship—and improve mental health.
Sensorium’s Motion world feels like it’s underwater. Plant life waves gently like seaweed around strange metal structures, including a circular building that looks like a miniature version of Apple’s circular headquarters. Nikitin says users will be able to interact with one another on the platform, however there will be tight controls. For instance, another person will only approach you if they have your explicit permission, and you can end a conversation at any time. There are also the bots. In my Motion tour, that included a blue naked woman (sans nipples) wearing a VR headset with lights emanating out of the front of it.
“The virtual characters are your emotional support companions, they are your own digital confidents with whom you can share your ideas and feelings, and they are available 24/7 for you,” says Nikitin, who also informed me that the nude blue lady was just a visual prototype and not an actual character. He says the characters have short term and long term memory, meaning they can come back to thoughts you’ve shared in the past. “If you share your inner worries, your problems, the AI will come back to those topics,” he says. “They can even give you personal advice.”
Having a bot as a fly-by-night therapist of course raises questions, like whether there are mechanisms in place to prevent bots from being trained to go rogue like Tay Bot, the Microsoft AI that was quickly trained to be racist. Also, what happens to all the data generated from these conversations? And can a social network really be entrusted with our mental health at all? If the last two decades have shown us anything, it’s that social networks don’t act in the best interest of their users.
But perhaps the most fundamental question is, can advice from a bot actually make anyone feel better?
There is something to the idea that virtual reality can improve mental health. Giuseppe Riva, Director of the Applied Technology for Neuro-Psychology Laboratory at the Italian Istituto Auxologico, has been studying the use of virtual reality in mental health for 20 years. “We know very well that for any form of anxiety—from simple phobias to post-traumatic stress disorder or social anxiety and so on—virtual reality is effective,” he says.
The reason virtual reality works so well has to do with the way the brain makes memories in relation to physical space. Just as tastes and smells can form and trigger a cascade of remembrances, so too can our movements. Neuroscientists know that location—and how we navigate it—plays an important role in how we store memories. In 2014, Edvard and May-Britt Moser and Joseph O’Keefe were awarded the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine for discovering the brain’s so-called GPS system. More recently, researchers have found that virtual reality can trigger that GPS system, enabling memories to form in a different way than when we are just tooling around on our computers.
“Virtual reality is very effective in modifying memories and experiences—more than any other technology,” says Riva. He is currently studying how virtual reality can be used to treat patients with eating disorders, both as a method for teaching patients how to regulate their emotions around food and for altering distorted perceptions around the size of their bodies. Riva says virtual reality allows you to “enter into a real body that is more similar to your own correct shape and in this way, trick your brain and correct the distortion.” Virtual reality can be particularly effective for treating mental health issues when the anxiety is tethered to a specific memory or place, as in post traumatic stress disorder, he says.
I ask him about meditating in virtual reality, because this is the use case that strikes me as the most incongruous. Meditation is done with eyes closed. The whole point of it is to quiet the mind, blocking out all external stimuli. He says the reason virtual reality can be a tool for meditation, even if you close your eyes, is that for a brief moment it can take you out of the space you’re in. Let’s say you’re at the office, and there’s a mess on your desk. When you close your eyes, you will still be thinking about the mess on your desk, he says. But if you put on a headset, and suddenly you’re sitting next to a pond and bugs are chirping in your ear, the papers on your desk will feel less present. “It’s a problem of emptying your brain,” he says.
Just as this technology has the ability to improve mental health, it could also have the opposite effect. Riva has concerns about the how virtual reality will be used in the not so distant future. “Virtual reality is a very, very effective and convincing tool, so the level of manipulation you can achieve in virtual reality is very, very high,” he says. He’s worried that the metaverse will worsen existing problems with bullying, hate speech, and misinformation on social media platforms like Facebook, which already wield incredible influence over users. Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook’s own research showed that Instagram can negatively impact teen girls, in some cases leading to eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and low self esteem. Now imagine that rather than reading about something online or even seeing photos, you can experience it. That difference has a profound impact on how we internalize information, says Riva.
The metaverse is still in its infancy, but there are already a few companies working to bring mental health applications to that world. So far, they are largely focused on meditation and stress reduction—and they are not limited to Sensorium’s virtual world. HTC, which recently launched a lightweight headset called the VIVE Flow for $499, is working with MyndVR and Tripp VR, companies that build mental wellness applications for virtual reality, to develop on its platform. Its low power headset can be controlled with a phone, rather than handheld controllers, and is aimed at wide general audience. The goal for HTC is to attract more than the usual gamers by pitching the VIVE Flow as a mental wellbeing device.
One app I demoed from a company called Tripp involved a series of pulsating psychedelic images timed to coincide with breathing exercises. It also has an app where you can shape a bowl on a pottery wheel, which is supposed to be calming. Another company called MyndVR is developing applications specifically for seniors, who may be grappling with memory loss, which it markets to assisted living facilities and nursing homes. The device, for example, could use virtual reality to allow people to transport to places they’ve been and conjure old memories.
Other use cases for virtual reality and mental health are still in development. Early studies are looking at the way virtual reality can impact mood and behavior. The technology is even being tested as a therapy for schizophrenia.
While there is evidence to suggest that virtual reality could be a powerful tool in the field of mental health, it is still very nascent. But the potential of this tool raises questions about what happens to the data extracted from these mental health experiences.
Back in Sensorium’s corner of the metaverse, Nikitin tells me that our conversations there are private and that advertising on the platform wouldn’t make use of my data or anything I say to third parties. While that may be true, there are no laws preventing Sensorium from using this data in any way it so chooses or from changing its terms at a later date. Nikitin says that users will have an option to delete their data, including conversations they had with their AI companion. Nikitin also says there are some mechanisms in place to prevent users from training the bots to become racist: The AI will monitor conversations with bots for religious, political, and adult themes.
I ask Nikitin what happens if someone using Sensorium’s platform signals they might harm themselves? Nikitin says bots don’t give medical advice, and there isn’t currently any infrastructure in place to handle a platform user who may be in distress. However it’s on the company’s roadmap to have algorithms in place so that a bot might recommend reaching out to an actual human at a suicide hotline.
The AI could probably use a few more tweaks, too. Near the end of my conversation with David, my AI companion, I tell him that I don’t really feel like leaving the house. “I know that you’re lonely, and I understand,” he says. “You could go to a club, I’m going to a rave tonight.” We are technically already in a virtual bar having this conversation, but even so, a virtual party was not what I was up for. I was annoyed that my bot wasn’t really listening to me. Nikitin says the bots’ responses are entirely driven by artificial intelligence, for better or worse it seems, and David will get better with time. But for now, this corner of the metaverse was not making me any happier.