Healium: Virtual reality intersects with mental health and therapy

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COLUMBIA - A Columbia story-telling company is exploring how virtual and augmented reality experiences can reduce stress and help improve mental health.

StoryUP CEO and former KOMU 8 anchor Sarah Hill said the seeds of the product known as Healium were sown in 2015.

Trying to help terminally ill WWII veterans experience an Honor Flight despite being too weak to physically make the trip, the team created a VR tour of Washington D.C.

Hill said she noticed the experience was affecting the veterans on a deeper, physical level.

"They weren't just watching that media, they were feeling it," she said. "They would take off the goggles, their bodies would relax and they would say, 'Can I watch it again?’"

Hill said she remembers one veteran in particular, who was supposed to be too weak to raise his arms above his head.

"Halfway through this experience, that veteran had his arms above his head, trying to reach out for the people he saw on the screen," she said.

Hill said the phenomenon led her to belive her company was onto something that could help people.

"We decided to study it with hospital grade EEG skin conductants and looking how Healium affects the stress reactions in the brain," she said.

Hill, along with Oregon-based psychologist Dr. Jeff Tarrant, found Healium to be an effective way to reduce stress.

Hill said other scientists are starting to come to the same conclusion, as evidence by articles in Frontiers in Psychology and the Journal of NeuroRegulation.

"Two peer reviewed journals recently came out with studies showing that Healium not only reduces self-report anxiety, but also increases feelings of positivity in a group of firefighters," she said.

According to the Healium website, the concept is simple: "A small, low-profile headband called a brain-computer interface senses electrical activity in your brain; and a virtual reality headset immerses you in the experience."

Hill said the headband measures and uses the user's gamma asymmetry, an electrical impulse in the brain associated with feelings of positivity. 

"The more your Gamma leans to the left frontal region of your forehead, research as shown that the more feelings of positivity you have, the more openness you have, the more love, joy, appreciation you have," she said.

That's where the technology comes in.

"We're taking the output of that feeling, we're importing it inside a game engine and then allowing you control these different assets with your thoughts and emotions," Hill said.

Ricky Rockley, StoryUP's design lead, said humans aren't the only species to experience stress, something he explores in a VR experience.

"With the Burr Oak, it's been around for 350 years or so," Rockley said. "When I saw it, I wondered what it would look like before they built the road next to it or it had been defaced."

Rockley said the Burr Oak simulation starts with dreary scene, gray skies, little vegetation and the tree covered in graffitti and trash.

"As you think positively, as you get above this baseline, the environment begins to heal itself, as you see, the trash dissolves and the graffitti burns off, even the lighting goes from a real cool blue to a warm yellow," he said.

Hill said the simulation also has a deeper lesson.

"That Burr Oak has been through floods, droughts, graffitti, all kinds of things and yet it endured, just like you as a human being can endure, no matter what it is you're facing," she said.

For both Rockley and Hill, Healium seeks to solve a problem they're both very familiar with.

"I, myself, deal with anxiety on a daily basis," Rockley said."The fact that our end goal is to help as many people as possible with their day-to-day struggles in jobs they may have traditionally enjoyed but now have gotten so fatigued with is a pretty powerful thing."

A journalist for more than two decades, Hill said constant stress and anxiety took it's toll.

"It's trauma on a daily basis and I suffered from anxiety. I had to get out of the business for a little while," she said. "We created Healium, in a sense, for myself and everyone else who suffers from anxiety."

Hill said Healium is already being used all across the country, from nurses combating compassion fatigue to U.S. sailors experiencing nature hundred of miles offshore.

"It's a drugless solution that makes you more aware of your emotions," Hill said. "It's not necessarily health care, it's self care."