Virtual reality entrepreneurs have tried a lot of things — from games to training applications — to lure people into VR. But Micah Jackson had another idea: making a VR app where you’re supposed to do nothing but relax.
Jackson is the founder of Esqapes, a Los Angeles startup that lets you experience soothing VR environments while you’re relaxing in a high-end massage chair. I tried it out during a recent visit to the Esqapes spa in the Wilshire area of Los Angeles and found it to be very relaxing. In fact, I nodded off a few times during a half-hour massage.
In an interview, Jackson told me that he wanted to create an immersive relaxation experience through a combination of sensory components (like aromatherapy and heat lamps), an Oculus VR headset, and a massage chair.
“The intention with this is that you aren’t active,” Jackson said. “It’s like taking a trip to the Bahamas.”
What it feels like
I tried it out after a hectic day following a flight. Jackson and his assistant welcomed me to the spa and sat me down in a relaxation chair with a view of some plants and a sunset. That was to get me in the mood.
Then I took off my shoes and put my belongings in a locker and sat down in one of the big massage chairs. I had to lean my head back onto a headrest and sink my arms and legs into slots in the massage chair. Then Jackson put the Oculus VR headset — which was connected via wire to a computer — on my head and my experience started.
I chose to experience a virtual spa location near a waterfall. I could hear and see the water falling. I could look around to see my surroundings in a 360-degree environment. It was well done, with soothing music. And then the massage chair kicked in and gave me a full-body massage. The massage was pretty intense, and I was surprised at how good it was. It was quite relaxing. So much so that I fell asleep.
How it started
Jackson became fascinated with VR a few years ago so he quit his day job creating web-based user experience tasks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and began experimenting with different VR projects. He was accepted into the Oculus Launchpad program, which funded development of his project that included the creation of some heavenly environments.
“When I was working on it, I would sometimes just sit in the environment,” Jackson said. “I thought this was really nice. I would just be at my desk with a headset on and just sit there and zone out. I wondered if other people would like to do this too.”
By 2017, he had finished that work and moved on to other ideas.
“One day, I was walking and it was an epiphany,” he said. “It was the massage chair. It would be perfect because it essentially makes sense for you to be seated and not do anything. With the massage chair … you’re in the right position. You’re there and not expected to do anything. I convinced my wife to get a massage chair, and I started prototyping the concept.”
Jackson had a couple of decades of experience in games. So he started creating environments for people to view while they’re inside VR, getting a massage from the Ohco (formerly DreamWave’s M.8 chair), which sells for about $12,000.
Once Jackson got the chair, he started crafting more environments. Now he has a total of 11 different relaxing environments that you can choose for your own spa experience. He bootstrapped the startup, and the maker of massage chairs, Ohco, was really excited about it.
“My biggest question was [whether] people would actually do this,” Jackson said. “Would people get it?”
Creating a business
Jackson is now figuring out how to turn the experience into a business. The company has opened its first spa and is booking appointments for massages for about $45 per half hour. But Jackson is contemplating raising money and is considering franchising the experience to other potential operators as well. He is also seeking out partners among chair makers.
The first spa location is in the middle of an office area. It opened in July, and now people are regularly booking the place.
“My goal was to bring the spa experience to people in an office park, where you typically don’t find a spa,” he said. “You don’t always have time to drive to a distant location where you can get great views. In this case, you don’t need great views because the VR creates that for you.”
Over time, Jackson hopes to build the spas in places like hotels, or on office campuses at places like Google, where employees could go off to a relaxation room.