Entertainment

Free your mind: Meditation could be VR's next killer app

Mindfulness has grown into a billion-dollar business on mobile. Are VR meditations next?

someone meditating through the lenses of a VR headset

A number of apps and services are looking to bring mindfulness and meditation to VR.

Photo illustration: Getty Images; Hoame; Protocol

After opening their first meditation studio in Toronto in 2018, the co-founders of Hoame were looking to expand. However, instead of calling up their real estate agent, they decided to go virtual. “We wanted to bring what we knew worked in the studio environment to the metaverse,” said Hoame co-founder Stephanie Kersta.

The work on a VR app for Hoame began before the pandemic, but it became even more urgent when COVID-19 kept people from attending in-person meditation classes. “People miss their studio,” Kersta said. “People miss that studio environment.”

Hoame launched its Quest app a little over a month ago, and is now offering a studio-like meditation experience in VR. People can join live classes, catch up on past meditations or do breathing exercises, all while watching 360-degree videos of trainers sitting in a lotus pose in front of them, ready to bring some peace to their busy minds.

Hoame is just one of a number of apps and services looking to bring mindfulness and meditation to VR. Meditation services were among the first to embrace subscription billing on Meta’s Quest app store, and Meta competitor HTC even built an entire VR headset around the notion of immersive wellness.

It’s a surprising direction for VR, an industry that was squarely focused on gaming for years. But after fitness apps and services became an overnight hit in VR app stores, leading Meta to spend between $400 million and $500 million on VR workout service Supernatural, some are wondering: Could meditation be VR’s next killer app?

Trading yoga pillows for trippy graphics

Strapping a screen on your face may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you are looking to get a break from our screen-based world. But for Tripp founder and CEO Nanea Reeves, it’s a match made in heaven. The games industry veteran was introduced to the power of meditation after experiencing a mental health crisis as a teenager. That’s also when she learned that it takes a lot of work to truly let go. “It can take years of regular meditation practice for you to actually get to that state,” she said.

When Reeves experienced similar states during early VR demos, she knew she was on to something. She pitched the concept to VCs, raised a $4 million seed round in 2017, and began tapping into the expertise of medical VR researchers to build Tripp as a different kind of mental health app. Instead of trying to replicate the traditional studio experience, Reeves decided to go all out and build a trippy, mesmerizing VR world full of fractals and mini games that are supposed to provide shortcuts to the mind’s flow state.

“Rather than just trying to simulate this world, we really thought: Why don't we build experiences you cannot have in this world,” Reeves said. One example is the way Tripp facilitates breathing exercises. Instead of just coaching people to slow down their breathing, the app provides visual cues that make it look like participants inhale and exhale magical fairy dust.

Image: Hoame

Hoame's virtual meditation service can replicate the studio experience with instructors.

This approach has helped Tripp reach and attract new audiences. “There is this assumption that meditation apps only appeal to women who do yoga,” Reeves said. Tripp’s user base much more closely mirrors the general population. Early on, like the rest of VR, it was dominated by male gamers. “That audience is very vocal about what they don't like,” Reeves said. “That actually helped us build a better product.”

It makes sense that VR early adopters would also be open to experimenting with new ways to manage their stress, said Melody Song, who covers mental health tech as a freelancer for Fitt Insider. “They’re in a new environment and trying out new technology, [so] they probably will also be much more open-minded to trying out a new experience,” she said.

Reeves declined to comment on the number of users Tripp has attracted for its $4.99-per-month subscription services, but she said that the company has facilitated more than 4 million meditation sessions to date. The startup also raised another $11 million last year, and it recently acquired the VR meditation community EvolVR, which has been organizing popular mindfulness events on

Tripp now wants to use EvolVR to add a social component to its own service, while also growing a community of meditation practitioners across multiple social platforms. “Tripp has the opportunity to build the connective tissue for what we call the mindful metaverse,” Reeves said.

We all meditate — or lie about it

The success of Tripp, EvolVR and some of its competitors suggests that there is a market for mindfulness and meditation in VR. The size of that market is still anyone’s guess. Even solid numbers for the broader mindfulness market opportunity are hard to come by, with a variety of analysts suggesting anything from a $2 billion domestic market by the end of this year to a global $4 billion by 2027.

Part of the problem is that mindfulness and meditation itself, much like philosophy or religion, are somewhat squishy concepts. People may be quick to profess an interest or even active participation, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to real action, much less a willingness to pay for apps and services.

When the CDC asked people in 2018 whether they practiced meditation, more than 14% of respondents claimed they had done so in the last year. When asked by Pew Research about the same subject in 2014, a whopping 40% claimed they meditated once a week.

Still, there’s a large and growing interest in using technology for mindfulness and meditation. Calm.com reached a valuation of $2 billion in late 2020, and competitor Headspace merged with Ginger last year to form a $3 billion mental health juggernaut.

Both companies are still private and under no obligations to share their annual revenue numbers, but app analytics specialist Sensor Tower told Protocol that the two companies generated a combined $200 million in Android and iOS app store revenues in 2021, up from $177 million in 2020 and $149 million in 2019. (Calm and Headspace also have wholesale subscription businesses and other revenue sources.)

Calm experimented with VR meditation a few years ago, but neither company currently has any active presence on Meta’s Quest headset. That could change. “VR actually makes a ton of sense for both of these, so I wouldn't be surprised if they lean even further into it in the future,” Song said.

A third pillar for VR

Reeves freely admitted that she was inspired by the growth of Calm and Headspace, but said that she doesn’t see the two as direct competitors to Tripp. “I'm very much grateful to those companies for their contribution in shifting the narrative around meditation,” she said.

Tripp already has a mobile app, with plans to expand the content offered on phones for times when people don’t wear their headsets, but Reeves said that the primary focus would stay in immersive technologies. Later this year, the company plans to launch a location-based AR app in partnership with Niantic. Down the line, Tripp also wants to find ways to share revenue with content creators.

Hoame’s plans are a bit less ambitious, and include adding regular community events to its app. But while their approaches may differ, Tripp and Hoame share the same goal: to lower barriers and allow more people to discover meditation.

“There are a lot of reasons why people can’t come to a physical space,” Kersta said. “Time, child care, social anxiety, location. And we have [only] one studio space that will fit X amount of people. Whereas there's infinite growth in a global app.”

But VR doesn’t just have a lot of potential for meditation, mindfulness and mental health. Reeves also believes that apps like Tripp can help VR grow and succeed with parts of the population less interested in traditional gaming.

It wouldn’t be the first time for the technology to gain an unexpected killer app: When high-end VR first emerged, many companies bet on AAA gaming as a key driver of device sales. Instead, the rhythm game Beat Saber, created by a small studio without a marketing budget, became the industry’s biggest success story. And when Beat Saber fans began exchanging stories about weight loss and muscle gain as a result of their daily workouts, they inspired a whole new genre of fitness apps and services, including Supernatural.

“Fitness emerging was a surprise,” Reeves said. Meditation and wellness could be next, and, like gaming and fitness, might become a key driver for VR adoption. “I do think it is a third pillar,” she said.

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