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Virtual Reality Massage

Imagine it: The year is 2005. The typical massage office no longer has tables at all. No oils, no linens, no cleanup, no laundry. Instead it is now a studio with Virtual Reality equipment. Sounds farfetched? Perhaps not as much as you may think.

At the AMTA convention in Albuquerque this past October [1995], we were asked to envision the future of massage, specifically how it would be in the year 2005. Given that I am a science fiction buff, it occurred to me that virtual reality massage could really happen. Couple that with the enthusiastic response the audience gave when a member from our table shared my idea, I've decided it's a topic definitely worth pursuing.

Virtual Reality (VR) is here NOW. Several manufacturers already have home units available for sale. At less than $500, although more sophisticated models run about $3,000. Units with a more thoroughly immersed virtual world seen through a headmounted display start at $5,000. A company called StrayLight has already developed a VR unit (the Cybertron ) that includes a gyroscopic system allowing free movement within your experience (see photo). It costs a mere $54,000. Pleasure Island at Disneyworld already has two permanently installed Cybertron systems. One of the systems has two linked units which allows for competitve and collaborative interaction between two players. Tele-Communications Inc. and several other cable operators have announced plans to offer Virtual I/O's new Personal Display System (PDS) and PDS Gamer! over their cable networks. The channel features unlimited play for a monthly subscription fee.

Most of the lower-priced units are fairly simple, but given the major technological advances occurring in the computer world, it's reasonable to assume that within the next decade this technology will be widely available at an affordable price. But even if you can't afford (or don't want) your own elaborate home unit, you won't need to be deprived of VR experiences, there will most likely be numerous VR facilities in every city.

New businesses are emerging to support this burgeoning industry. Currently, the more sophisticated VR models are found mainly in arcades. A company located in a St. Louis mall has had an operational VR facility for several years now. A couple last year experienced the first-ever VR wedding in which they created their dream environment to exchange vows. The Winter 1994 issue of a magazine titled Virtual Reality has a 17-page resource directory of businesses involved with VR. Soon we will find comfortable, upscale studios where people can experience anything from high adventure to blissful pleasure.

Flight simulations for pilots have been around for many years. Now they're just more sophisticated and not limited to pilots. NASA uses VR for many applications. They have selections of underwater, graphical and hardware simulations designed to give crew members necessary practice so that no movements are wasted (particularly during ExtraVehicular Activities which are the most hazardous and costly).

The January/February 1995 issue of Health Magazine reported that psychotherapists are helping patients overcome their phobias via virtual reality. For instance, people who fear heights learn to walk over digitized bridges.

Surgical simulations will revolutionize medical training. The FDA is in the approval process for equipment that provides stereoscopic displays during endoscopic surgery. Applied Management Associates in California held its third annual conference on "Medicine Meets Virtual Reality" this last January. One medical company called High Techsplanations uses VR to create surgical simulations for training and also certification. Why not do this for massage?

Currently many versions of VR simulations exist. It's only a matter of time before they are as sophisticated as shown in futuristic movies such as "Lawnmower Man." The actual unit in that movie was similar to the Cybertron model, with the addition of a full-body suit, which allows the user to be fully immersed into VR.

You may be wondering where all this conjecture is leading. We must be proactive regarding our position on the future of massage. We've been so focused on therapeutic massage that we've forgotten how important relaxation massage is. With VR, it would behoove us to consider what role we want to take. There's no denying the relaxation benefits of massage. Given the stressful world we live in, many uptight people would be much more inclined to experience the relaxation benefits of massage through VR than be touched by another human being. I realize you might not want to hear this or even believe it's true, but the reality is that many people are touch-phobic and this seems to be escalating as we become more withdrawn and isolated from each other.

To remain on the cutting edge with modalities as well as from a marketing viewpoint, we must be aware of societal trends. An excellent book on this topic is The Popcorn Report by Faith Popcorn. She talks about how more people are "cocooning" (staying at home more, renting videos, getting food delivered) and that this trend will escalate into "burrowing" (where people create homes more like fortresses and leave only when absolutely necessary). I've seen many signs of this already. In relation to massage the demand for outcalls and on-site massage is on the rise and may accelerate in the near future.

I'm not advocating that VR massage replace hands-on therapy, yet it would be foolish to ignore the inevitable. Why not be at the forefront of this emerging trend rather than be forced to accept someone else's agenda? As massage therapists we should join together to create several VR massage programs. Think about the possibilities...

Two potential ideas for VR massage are: a pre-programmed massage and an interactive massage. For the pre-programmed massage every therapist could design their own VR program or even a series of programs. Thus clients who are unable or unwilling to come in for a session could place their therapist's program into their VR unit in the comfort of their own home. The program could be leased or purchased.

Canned programs sell. Several reclining chairs on the market come with pre-programmed "massages" of varying lengths and intensity. No one would ever consider that this could take the place of massage, but it's a great adjunct and sales are soaring. VR massage is just taking it to the next logical step.

I can imagine one of the immediate objections you have is that every massage you do is different. Perhaps this can be worked into the program. Granted, this is not the ideal massage situation, but many people will opt for this. I would rather massage therapists themselves play an active part in developing these programs than to leave it up to the entertainment industry which has immense financial backing and hasn't always accurately portrayed the massage profession. Yet the entertainment industry knows that massage is a great technique for reducing stress and several celebrities have already produced massage videos. Given that several VR companies are currently working on designing a relaxation program a massage program won't be that far off.

Another VR option would be that both the therapist and the client get suited up for a VR experience. This would eliminate any concerns for physical limitations on the part of the therapist or the client. For example, the massage therapist could still perform massage jobs even with a broken arm. Imagine a world without carpal tunnel syndrome! Also, a client could still receive a massage regardless of physical challenges.

As a VR massage therapist the amount of pressure needed to achieve the results would be minimal. For example, deep tissue therapy would no longer take such a toll on the therapist. The duration of modalities would be unlimited. You could do 20 minutes of tapotement on a client or give a two-hour massage without becoming winded. Contagious or unpleasant skin conditions would no longer be a deterrent to providing healthy touch for clients. Clients with body/modesty issues could have their body look exactly how they want it to. So in many ways VR massage would eliminate most of the major blocks people have that prevent them from getting massage in the first place!

Plus, the massage could take "place" anywhere you want on the shores of the Mediterranean, by the craters on the moon, in the middle of the rain forest, in the outback of Australia, soaring above the Rio Grande Gorge, or in front of a roaring fire in a Swiss chalet. Picture doing a massage while floating in the warm, gentle waters of the South Pacific with dolphins frolicking nearby. Just imagine being in the middle of a heat wave and offering your clients the experience of being in a cool, crisp setting with the sounds of a waterfall cascading in the background, birds cheerfully singing overhead, and the smell of gardenias wafting through the air. Talk about a differential advantage!

Yet no matter how you get around it, you will still need to effectively market yourself and your services or you will not have a thriving practice. Even if you do little direct hands-on touch anymore, you will still need excellent communication skills.

I don't think anything can really replace real human contact through touch. But you may want to consider having part of your practice be VR because it would open you up to many more clients who aren't able or don't want to be directly touched. People who regularly receive massage might want a VR massage on occasion as a special treat.

Virtual Reality is a trend not to be ignored. Let's begin now to develop ideas to shape the future of massage in the upcoming world of Virtual Reality.

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Last updated: June 11, 2012
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