‘Your thoughts have power’

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Virtual reality venture StoryUP creates immersive experiences that reduce stress and improve mental health.

In 2012, after spending more than two decades as a reporter and anchor at radio and television stations around Missouri, Sarah Hill had become unsettled by all of the trauma she was witnessing.

“Rapes, murders, homicides, having to interview people who have lost children,” said Hill, a former anchor at the NBC affiliate in Columbia and professor at the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. “And ultimately, you live by a police scanner day in and day out, and it can really wear on a person, and it wore on me, and I had to get out of the media business.”

Sarah Hill

Sarah Hill

Hill, 48, took a position with Veterans United Home Loans, a Columbia-headquartered company through which she produced stories about veterans and helped to create virtual tours of memorials for aging veterans who no longer could travel to see the sites.

As she worked with a psychologist to measure the brain patterns and heart rate — stress biomarkers — of veterans during the virtual tours, she noticed that the experiences appeared to be affecting their physiology in a positive way.

So in 2015, Hill left the company to launch a venture, StoryUP, which aimed to use virtual reality headsets and biometric wearables to create an immersive experience that improves users’ mental health.

“We set out to create a product that reduces stress quickly,” said Hill of her Columbia-based company.

Its central product, Healium, is described as “the world’s first [virtual reality and augmented reality] platform controlled by the user’s emotions.” It has since been purchased or tested in pilot programs by a variety of groups, including the U.S. Navy, the Boys & Girls Club of America and airlines for passengers on long flights and at lounges.

The startup is part of a growing industry centered around various applications of virtual reality technology. MarketsAndMarkets, a global market-research firm, projected earlier this year that the industry will expand from $7.9 billion in 2018 to $44.7 billion by 2024.

Virtual reality technology finds “major applications in gaming and entertainment, health care, retail and ecommerce, and enterprise applications,” the MarketsAndMarkets report states.

In that industry, StoryUP Studios has used Healium to rise above other startups. The company recently took home first place in the augmented and virtual reality category at the 2019 South by Southwest (SXSW) pitch contest and won $4,000 at the Consumer Electronics Show pitch contest in Las Vegas.

With Healium, users strap on a headband containing an EEG strip that captures the electrical activity in the forehead. The system then imports that data into an artificial reality powered by a gaming engine that users see through a pair of virtual reality goggles or on a mobile device.

A narrator asks users to “recall a happy memory, a time when you felt love, joy or appreciation,” Hill said. Meanwhile, they look at scenes such as a cherry blossom grove in Washington D.C. If their “feelings of calm or feelings of positivity” are “above a certain threshold, then these cherry blossoms start to fly inside the headset, and they swirl all around you. If you dip below that threshold, then they stop,” Hill explained.

The neurofeedback technology has been used in clinical tests. A study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that “VR-based meditation interventions have the potential to play an important role in anxiety management and stress reduction.” One of the psychologists who authored the study, Dr. Jeff Tarrant, works for StoryUP, which was disclosed in the report.

Dayle Garrett of Columbia, a 99-year-old veteran of the U.S. Military Police, used Healium to virtually tour memorial sites in Washington because he was not able to participate in the Honor Flight program, which sends veterans to the capital for tours. The company ships the kits to veterans who otherwise would take Honor Flights for no charge.

Dayle’s daughter, Sharen Garrett, said he didn’t quite understand what was happening at the start of the tour, but “as time went on, he really enjoyed it.”

“I was just so happy that he was able to have that experience,” said Sharen, a retired preschool teacher. “It was moving for me to watch it — what people can see in this day and age.”

The company sells its Healium kit, which includes virtual reality goggles, a headband and a six-month subscription to its virtual reality experiences, for $678 on its website.

healium-ar-planetsCraig Adams purchased 12 sets for his STEM Bus, a mobile classroom dedicated to science, technology, engineering and math built inside a gutted school bus that he drives around Columbia.

In addition to working with robots and conducting science experiments on the bus, Adams also parks the bus after school hours outside the Boys & Girls Club of Columbia, which aims to help children who are often underserved in health, education and other services. The students there use the Healium kits, for example, to stand at the base of a waterfall, and “the more positively [they] think,” the more they begin to levitate up the waterfall, Adams said.

“When you are dealing with kids that come from some pretty iffy situations at home, teaching them how to deal with their stress or their anger issues — that’s the thing that really struck me [about Healium]. So all of the augmented reality, the virtual reality — it’s like gamifying your feelings. You’re really meeting kids where they are,” said Adams.

Malachi Robinson just completed seventh grade and has been going to the Boys & Girls Club after school since he was in second grade.

“I think it was really cool and interesting to go into different types of worlds and see the water,” said Robinson. “It looked really realistic.”

Mary Jane Schaftel, a nurse and a health and wellness coach in Loveland, Colorado, first became acquainted with Healium through Tarrant, the psychologist with StoryUP, who was educating her on neurofeedback. Schaftel had planned to use the kit for her bedbound father, but he died before she could do so. Then in 2018, she also developed stage 3 breast cancer. She had been in contact with Hill, who mailed her a kit.

She used it for meditation at the virtual waterfall and for one at an ancient tree that had been vandalized. “As you think happy thoughts, the tree becomes beautiful again, and the environment changes,” she said.

Schaftel said that with Healium, “Instead of looking at breast cancer as a disease that I was fighting and at war with, it helped me flow through the treatments — which were pretty grueling — in an accepting way, that this was a journey that I was on.”

She now is largely recovered, and in addition to coaching, she would like to “give presentations and help psychologists realize the value of neurofeedback” and the benefits of Healium, she said.

While Healium has generated positive feedback among users, not everyone accepts that such technology can universally have a therapeutic effect. For example, the makers of Oculus Go virtual reality goggles stipulate that they should not be worn by children under age 13. Robinson is 12.

“Immersive media — augmented, virtual, mixed, and cross reality — are powerful systems, with the potential to have serious ramifications on children’s physical, cognitive and socio-emotional development. Ideally, with thoughtful, consistent reflection and action, immersive media will support learning and development and empower children through equitable access and participation,” a report from the recent Immersive Media and Child Development conference states.

And while Hill appears to be a strong believer in her product, she does say “nothing is better than the real thing, seeing it in reality. But for people who can’t get to that reality — either they live in a place” that doesn’t have access to the experiences Healium offers, “or their physical abilities don’t allow them to get out of their house or get out of their bed. This is a walk in the park for people who can’t take a walk in the park.”

In order to make that happen, Hill and her team of game designers and developers had to build an algorithm and custom plug-ins so the hardware and software could communicate.

“Wearables aren’t designed to natively power AR or VR environments and vice versa, so our team had to build custom solutions on a bootstrapped budget,” she explained.

Also, people and companies in the Midwest have not adopted virtual reality as quickly as people on the coasts, Hill said. “But there are great companies all over the Silicon Prairie trying to change that,” she added.

“Few people in our area had heard of or tried virtual or augmented reality powered by their wearables, so we had to not only create the product but educate them about these new spatial computing environments,” Hill explained. “They also had never powered anything with their brain or heart rate. We find most people are naturally curious, as they have never seen their own brain pattern react to visual stimuli like that in near real time.”

Now StoryUP is in a pilot program with the U.S. Department of Defense for Healium to be used by the military. Sailors on aircraft carriers have used the device.

They “don’t see nature for months, so the ability to bring them nature virtually and allow them to better understand how they can control their emotions is an exciting solution,” Hill said.

The company also expects to soon announce a new partnership with health care providers that expands Healium’s global footprint, she added.

As for Hill, “life after TV is great,” she said.

“I was able to find some drugless solutions, like neurofeedback and nature and all of those different things,” she said. “But not everyone is able to do that, and in today’s world of ugliness and online ugliness, we need to have some new tools to remind people that their thoughts do have power, not only in the virtual world, but in the real world as well.”

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