XR therapies are having a moment 

If you’re keeping up-to-date with your health news—and as a MedTech Pulse subscriber, we know you are—you’ve likely noticed a trend. Extended reality (XR) therapies are popping up everywhere.

The latest buzzy headline comes from a collaboration with mindfulness darling Headspace and Meta: the Headspace XR app.

We’ve discussed why we think these immersive technologies can be great for both provider and patient education alike. Today, we’re taking a closer look at how XR technology itself can become the treatment—whether it’s formally called that or not.

Illustration by Mary Delaney
Illustration by Mary Delaney

XR in the wellness space: Headspace XR

Of all the apps and products we’re discussing today, we assume you’re most likely familiar with the traditional Headspace app, one of the most popular mindfulness and meditation apps around.

Now, with Headspace XR, users can access a new level of mindfulness engagement on Meta Quest. The app uses both virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR) experiences, letting users choose whether they want to explore and meditate with hand tracking or use controllers with haptic feedback. 

“Meta actually reached out to ask us what Headspace could look like in the world of VR,” said Headspace VP of Content Creation Sara Cohen. “And we went back with a pretty basic pitch: meditating in beautiful locations. Meta pushed us a bit further and said, ‘We really want to do something spectacular here. How about partnering with a VR production company—a company that really does this, that could work with you and your brand on bringing Headspace to life in this immersive world?’”

That’s what led Headspace to partner with VR company Nexus Studios, and Headspace XR was born.

What’s particularly compelling about this XR digital product is how—being solidly in the “wellness” category—it straddles health and play. As with many wearable devices, the wellness classification allows Headspace to innovate and deliver products more easily—without the stricter oversight of a fully medical designation—as long as they’re careful about the claims they make. 

As with popular wearables like smartwatches, we expect XR wellness apps to be the pioneers in this developing space, showing us what’s possible and increasing public familiarity before medical innovation gets a foothold.

XR for clinical mental health: “Virtual Vietnam”

Next, let’s turn to a solution that openly targets mental health—rather than staying in the wellness classification. 

VR startup Mynd Immersive develops immersive digital therapeutics for older adults. Their newest collaboration with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is no different.

The project is a VR experience with a peculiar name: “Virtual Vietnam: A Path to Peace.” As suggested by the name, it’s tailored for Vietnam War veterans.

Mynd Immersive’s past research with Stanford University has suggested XR therapies can facilitate improved mood and socialization among their senior participants. 

For the Vietnam project, the goal is to turn VR into a healing tool by exposing veterans to the vibrancy of present-day Vietnam. The experience is meant to stand in stark contrast to the war-torn landscapes from many veterans service memories. The goal is to allow veterans and their caretakers to reach a greater sense of peace and closure with their past experiences.

By collaborating with a leading health system—the VA—Mynd Immersive combines their expertise in XR digital therapeutics with deep knowledge of their target population’s deepest psychological needs. The goal is for the product to be truly therapeutic, and this medical-tech collaboration give it the best chance to succeed.

XR for chronic pain management: AppliedVR

Another clinical application of therapeutic XR that caught our attention also focuses on the mind. But this time, it targets how the mind influences chronic pain.

AppliedVR, a chronic pain VR therapeutic company, has been tackling the root of one of the United States’ most persistent public health issues: the opioid crisis. Chronic pain costs the country an estimated $635 billion annually. Many patients have few options to deal with their pain—leaving many to try and even become dependent on opioids. 

Chronic low back pain, which AppliedVR focuses on, is a leading cause of disability. The company’s RelieVRx program seeks to help patients manage this chronic condition from home without opioids. 

In 2021, the program became the first VR therapeutic approved by the FDA. Soon after, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) created a new code for the product, making it the first immersive therapeutic to be placed in an existing benefit category. In other words: the government has wanted to make this product available to patients.

Now, the results of AppliedVR’s latest study suggest the therapeutic is working: Users are seeing positive physiological changes and pain improvements.

Importantly, while it is self-administered, the therapeutic relies on an eight-week, physician-prescribed program. While some may argue that products with unlimited access and no oversight (like Headspace XR, for example) make it easier for more people to benefit, this provider oversight ensures that patients are progressing with the therapeutic. Plus, it lends the therapeutic a degree of authority. 

While using XR may feel to many like a game, this one comes with the doctor’s orders.

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