Unexpectedly relaxing • Affordable • Immersive elements are creative and effective

It’s not a real massage • Dystopian future vibes

The VR massage relaxes you by engaging your curiosity and giving you an affordable, any time escape.

I’m sitting in a shallow pool, with palm trees in my view, and the sun warming me from above — but my feet aren’t getting wet. That’s because I’m inhabiting a Virtual Reality paradise (courtesy of an ), while a massage chair squeezes my calves and forearms, and a fan and sun lamp warm me and keep me cool at the same time. 

This might be an artificial paradise, but it’s definitely a relaxing one. I am, surprisingly, blissed out.

calls itself a “virtual reality massage” experience that stressed out proletariats can turn to for an island of calm in the midst of a busy work week. Created by entrepreneur and VR/gaming developer Micah Jackson, Esqapes opened in Los Angeles this July, and offers 30-minute “treatments” for $45 a pop. 

Despite being called a “VR massage,” there is nothing virtual about the massage itself. A session gets you 30 minutes in a cushy massage chair that works on your back, bottom, and legs, yes, but also calves, feet, neck, arms, and hands. There’s no human masseur involved, but, as an Esqapes employee put it, the two chair models they use are more luxe than “what you find at the mall.”

Developer Micah Jackson is the mastermind of the Esqape.

Developer Micah Jackson is the mastermind of the Esqape.

However, to my surprise, the draw of the VR massage is more about the VR than the massage. Jackson designed 10 different “environments,” that range from the “tropical retreat” I experienced, to secluded glens, luxurious cabins, and exotic temples. Nothing happens, per se, in the VR worlds, except the passage of time as you would experience it in the real world: the sun moves across the sky, waves ripple, birds fly. The fact that you are earthbound in a massage chair forces you to simply look around and be. And that is what turns Esqapes from something that sounds like a silly, vaguely dystopian-sounding gimmick, to a novel and effective way to induce calm.

“The massage chair I was like, is perfect,” Jackson said. “It gives you a reason why you’re just in this world and just looking around, there’s no expectation to do anything, you know? That was kind of the twist.”

Even at this relatively early time for consumer VR, headset-based meditation aids are . My colleague Sasha Lekach was similarly “pleasantly surprised” when the FlowVR Oculus Go meditation app. There is another company that combines a massage chair with a VR world, Medisana, but it doesn’t have any of the interactive heat, wind, and scent elements that Esqapes provides. 

Esqapes is located off of a long taupe hallway in a Los Angeles office building; it is, itself, an office suite. It’s filled with low slung chairs, fake flowers and trees, and screens depicting sunsets or mountain landscapes. There is an area with individual booths in which customers can begin to unwind.

Set the tone with this pleasant waiting area.

Set the tone with this pleasant waiting area.

For the VR massage, I am led into a small room with a massage chair in the center. I’m instructed to slide my legs and arms into the chair pockets, and an Esqapes employee puts on and adjusts my headset and headphones. I then go through some typical VR calibration, and then…. the Esqape begins.

First, the device leads me through a short breathing exercise with pleasant expanding and contracting light bubbles to look at. I do some breathing, and then I am apparently zen enough to enter the world.

I’m dropped into a small, shallow pool of water. I look down, and I have no legs. But I do have a waterfall in the distance, and palm trees swaying in the breeze. Tropical birds fly and caw, and I find them vaguely annoying, but I get used to it as their squawks become a natural background noise.

As I examine the world for fidelity, I conclude that the VR trees and water don’t look ~exactly~ like trees and water, IRL. But this pretty quickly ceases to matter. Mostly, leaning back as the chair rubs my neck, I’m looking up at the sky, and I come to notice that the quality of the light is frankly perfect.

My 'tropical paradise.'

My ‘tropical paradise.’

Refracted light circles appear from time to time as I turn my head, as if my eyes are adjusting from bright light. A bird flies, and its shadow follows. I notice that I get pleasantly warm, and I realize the heat lamps have activated. I see the palm fronds twitching, and a breeze crosses along my face. 

“The software that I created basically triggers those elements at specific time,” Jackson said. “All ten environments are totally different, the senses that are used are totally different, and then those triggers are also initiated at different points.”

Markers in the software can set off devices like a fan or scent releaser when something happens in the virtual world. For example, when the sun moves out from behind a cloud, a heat lamp turns on.

These physical elements are pretty nice, and help me forget I’m sitting in an office off of Wilshire Boulevard.

Not just any massage chair!

Not just any massage chair!

As time goes on and my body softens into the chair, I realize something else is going on. When receiving real-life human massages in the past, I have had a hard time relaxing, at least for a while. I have been hyper aware of the fact that I am getting a massage, the fact that I am supposed to be relaxing. The same has gone for meditation: as I breathe in and out, I can’t help wondering, “Am I relaxed yet?!”

But in the VR world, I watch the birds and the trees and the water and the sky. I realize I’m not thinking of much at all, as my attention innocuously turns to the virtual clouds. I am focused on nothing in particular, and I’m calm, enjoying my massage — entering a state of mind in minutes that usually takes at least an hour during a human massage. 

“It engaged your curiosity,” said Judson Brewer, the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center. “Curiosity helps us move from close and contracted state into a more spacious state.”

Dr. Brewer’s lab has been studying how the state of curiosity can induce “mindful awareness” and help with behavior change. When I told him about the VR world, and how being able to look at something but nothing in particular (the sky, trees, birds, light), seemed to help me relax, he said the fact that I was curious about the world might have been a factor.

“I’m wondering if what you experienced has to do with just giving your mind lots of stuff to be curious about,” Brewer said. “We can’t force ourselves to do things like relax. But what you can do is bring awareness or curiosity to sensations.”

I realize I’m not thinking of much at all, as my attention innocuously turns to the virtual clouds.

This explanation made sense to me. I was exploring the VR world, so my mind was in an “open,” and not “contracted state.” That openness helped bring a sense of calm and contentment that is harder for me to achieve while simply getting a massage and actively trying to relax.

While I was pleasantly surprised by my Esqapes experience, there were a few things I couldn’t shake. The first was this kind of morose dread I felt when I wondered, is this the future of relaxation? It feels more than a little Black Mirror-ish to need to enter a virtual vacation to escape from the pressures of everyday life. However, as Jackson pointed out, you can’t take a vacation, or go to the beach, every week. This is meant to be a temporary, and more accessible oasis — a “mini vacation,” as they call it. Not a substitute for the real thing.

“We are in an office building specifically for a reason,” Jackson said. “My goal with this is to bring relaxation, wellness, and that spa experience to people where they work.”

Jackson also noted that a 30-minute Esqape is more financially feasible for most people; compare $45 for a 30-minute VR massage to upwards of $100 for most spa massages.

A different Esqape experience.

A different Esqape experience.

Dr. Brewer acknowledged the potential benefits of the half-hour experience, but sees relaxation sessions as a band-aid for an office worker with a stressful life.

“Ultimately, it can be nice, but it’s not gonna help somebody get ahead per se, as opposed to really learning to work with their own mind,” Brewer said. “Relaxation is great. But I would pick learning how to work with my own mind any day because I could universalize that, and I wouldn’t become dependent on something outside of me to feel better, to escape.”

Still, my VR massage at Esqapes was worthwhile. I walked in wondering whether I was going to make a deadline, juggling work and wedding planning and family obligations. But after just 30 minutes, I walked out of that small room in the similar pleasantly hazy frame of mind that I more often get after a rigorous one-and-a-half-hour yoga class. For me, the Esqape worked.

Ultimately, I see this type of “VR massage” as a bit like the highly realistic looking fake flowers that fill the Esqapes offices. They’re pretty, they’re appealing, they get the job done — but they’re no substitute for a live hydrangea. Still, that’s OK. In an office building where natural light is hard to come by, they manage to bring a little joy. Like the VR massage, they’re pleasant in their own way.

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