FitTech Insider

How can VR improve mental health, Amir Bozorgzadeh?

Virtuleap provides users with 10 minutes mental workouts via VR and based on scientific research. Why is Virtual reality a better learning environment compared to 2D screen-based trainings? "Because of the level of engagement", says Amir Bozorgzadeh, CEO and Co-Founder.

Amir Bozorgzadeh is a visionary. Looking at the smartphone in his hands he says: “2D screen-based technologies are way more alien to humans than virtual reality. If someone from the 1800s was in a virtual reality experience, they would be able to natively experience, navigate, learn and adapt to it.”

Bozorgzadeh is the Canadian-Iranian co-founder and CEO of Virtuleap. The health and education startup is based in Lisbon, Portugal. It combines neuroscience and virtual reality to help increase attention levels, and address cognitive illnesses, disorders, and learning challenges.
Enhance, Virtuleap‘s VR brain training app, offers a daily cognitive workout of short, intense, and fun games designed to help test and train your cognitive skills. To Amir Bozorgzadeh and his multidisciplinary team, the app is a “gym for the mind” with huge potential. According to Bozorgzadeh, more than 31.000 people use the app already.

With FitTech Insider, he sat down to discuss how VR brain training can add value to any healthy lifestyle, why it should be a frequent activity for everyone, and why VR will play a subordinate role in five years anyway.

Your app Enhance provides users with various 10 minutes mental workouts. You call it the “gym of the mind”. What kind of exercises are you offering?
All of our games are based on scientific research or neuropsychological assessment methodology. At Virtuleap, we bring these findings into the environment of virtual reality. We're creating an initial library with more than 20 different categories such as memory, information processing, attention, motor control, spatial orientation, or spatial audio awareness. These categories break down into subcategories, like working memory, short term memory, episodic memory, and long term memory.

Can you give an example of one of your games?
There are two types of games that we create. Some of them will really take advantage of the environmental features of VR, which are embodiment, gesticulation, and interactivity. Some of those games simply do not get improved when you move them into VR. In all our games, we have a specific type of audio that is designed to increase your focus levels. When you play our games, you get to see what your cognitive strengths are, and you can start to have more awareness of your weaknesses. Our games can help you augment those weaknesses, so that you can become more wholesome and not always focus on your strengths while ignoring your weaknesses.

Amir: "In all our games, we have a specific type of audio that is designed to increase your focus levels." (@Virtuleap)

Why is VR a better learning environment compared to 2D screen-based trainings?
In a VR environment, you're engaging multiple cognitive, experiential, and emotional learning centers in tandem. So, the way you store memories is much more holistic. It is a psychomotor experience in which you're doing mathematics, but also involving your motor control and spatial orientation. Because of the level of engagement, VR is a much more powerful way to learn.

Isn´t VR also as powerful because it addresses more senses?
Absolutely. It is designed to digitally engage our native UX as a human being, which is a 3D spatially rendered environment. Since VR is an imitation of the real world, it has a multi-sensory dimension. That is, surprisingly, why older adults are one of the earliest adopters of VR. They were using our app at senior living communities and nursing homes to battle the cognitive impact of isolation. Isolation can really accelerate cognitive deterioration, and Alzheimer's, for example.

Why is it surprising to many people that older ones are among the first movers?
Older adults are supposed to be estranged to technology. But 2D screen-based technologies are way more alien to humans than virtual reality is. If someone from the 1800s was in a virtual reality experience, they would be able to natively experience and navigate that experience and learn and adapt to it. 2D screen-based devices and formats are the alien technology – not VR.

What do the elderly people like most about your product?
We've designed the games in a way in which they're playable whether you're standing or sitting. The games are based on closed-loop design, which means that your comfort level is challenged, but you don't go below or above that. You find your optimum level – no matter how restricted your psychomotor skills are. We also have colorblind settings, for example, and other accessibility settings to maximize how our solution adapts to specific settings like motor restriction settings like a wheel-chair or sitting in an airplane.

Speaking of target groups: among elderly people you list quite a range on your website. Do you focus on one target group in particular?
We're fairly agnostic to who uses our solution for whatever cognitive disorder there is. Enhance is like a treadmill, designed for any kind of human. Anyone who's interested in their physical fitness will go to the gym and use it if they want to exercise that muscle. We are a gym for the mind, not a gym for geriatric-minds or otherwise higher risk groups. We have not designed our tool to be used by people with Alzheimer's or dementia. It's really for healthy adults that are either concerned or otherwise proactive about their cognitive health. If you start to think about your mental fitness in the way that we're trying to encourage with a technology like ours, you should be thinking `I wish I was able to do this as a 15-year-old`.

Who uses your app Enhance already?
The biggest gravitational pull is older adults at a point where they start to feel a subjective memory decline. But we also have partners who want to use VR for kids with autism and ADHD. Other partners use it for American football players for concussion therapy, or to help veterans with PTSD. There is of course increasing concern about the neurological issues and cases of memory impairment associated to covid, for example, or how we can apply our type of solution to address the impairment associated to chemotherapy, commonly referred to as chemo brain.

The world is becoming older and older year by year. In 2030 there will be up to 1 billion people 65+. Is this a good development for your company?
I feel it takes the gravity of a demographic imbalance like that for a tool like ours to become much more prevalent and more prioritized. Emerging technology always benefits from a sense of urgency to grease the wheels of the regulatory bodies and readily make it available for the mainstream. So many more people, and the insurance companies, have to deal with this, because if they're not paying attention, they will bear the highest possible cost.

So, the demographics illustrate a shiny future for your product.
Absolutely. But I hope that the ultimate consequence of that new appreciation is, that it doesn't take a person in their 40s to appreciate technology like ours. People should be thinking about it in their 20s or even in their teens.

Your app can be downloaded for free – how does your business model look like?
We are primarily a B2B company. Various companies are licensing our solution for use cases like rehabilitation, training, and education. Among our customers are HP and Penumbra. In 2022, we want to broaden our sales focus on smaller businesses, and have our solution licensed directly to a school or a senior living community. Then they would probably pay based on SaaS-model to have access to our back-end software and all of the companion applications that we provide to enterprise clients that are otherwise unavailable to someone who downloads our app for free.

What kind of partnerships are you currently looking for?
The priority is research partners that use our technology to apply it for a specific therapeutic area, like ADHD, like concussions, like Alzheimer's, and other cognitive issues. Secondly, we are looking for healthcare and education-related organizations who want to potentially trial our technology to their communities.

"5G will accelerate the development and release of augmented reality, but also catalyze VR adoption." – Amir Bozorgzadeh

Let's talk about the market: where are markets for VR education heading?
Education and healthcare – these are two sectors that are extremely stubborn to change. But during the pandemic both sectors have been so shocked to the core that they're very open to enable technology to help them navigate the storm. More and more forward-thinking educational institutes, like private high schools, are reaching out to us asking how they can use VR.

What do you think: is the often-hyped VR technology finally finding the application areas for its big breakthrough?
Regarding education, VR is still in that dabbling realm. Concerning healthcare: VR is mainstream now! It is being used for training surgeons, for pain management, for isolation therapy, for treating mental health issues like depression, schizophrenia, or generalized mental, cognitive health monitoring.

How will you adapt your product to VR glasses with biosensors?
We're already starting a clinical study using an HP headset with three integrated biosensors. Our tool as a cognitive assessment solution helps to better train their AI models, as well as make the practical application of the technology correlate easier with well-established ways of understanding focus and stress levels in high-performance use cases.

Speaking of features: what is the next big tech feature you will implement into your product?
Recently, we've released a beta version of a new companion application: the “remote control”. It allows a clinician to remote navigate the whole experience of the person in the VR experience using a mobile, tablet, or computer. Another feature we have launched in November is the “survey engine”. It allows an administrator to create a survey before and after the session for clinical studies, for example. In the first quarter of 2022, we're planning to launch a separate module that complements the brain training – it will be a snapshot of all cognitive abilities, a one-time assessment module that we think will trailblaze the entire sector.

Which upcoming technology will change your business the most?
5G! With 5G the real time processing no longer happens on the headset, but on the actual edge servers. So the headset can become thinner, smaller, lighter, and more comfortable. Right now, they look dorky and clunky. 5G will also accelerate the development and release of augmented reality, but also catalyze VR adoption.

What will characterize your market in five years?
Wellness and productivity will be the main thing that VR is used for – short, sweet, intense experiences to deal with your traumas, learning challenges, self-improvement interest, and general mental fitness. But I don't believe in long-form of VR. 20 minutes is the maximum for a virtual reality experience. AR is a sidekick that will really enable us in ways that we can barely imagine at the moment! All our games are designed to move into AR as soon as that becomes readily available. So, when VR and AR both build up like this, spatial computing can become the main computing platform for a variety of use cases, facilitated not only by VR, but VR and AR as perfect complements. We're an XR company – but it's up to 5G and providers to make that possible.