Artist Deepa Mann-Kler was in Iceland on vacation and searching for inspiration. Sitting in a Reykjavik Harbour cafe, she overheard local people speaking ecstatically about hometown heroine Björk’s ‘Vulnicura’ — the musician’s virtual reality concept album. The next morning, Deepa, whose trip to Iceland was inspired in part by her husband’s obsession with Björk music, was queueing up at the Airwaves Music festival to try virtual reality, or VR, for the first time.
That year, 2016, had been hard for Deepa. Her father died on January 1 and she was still coping with grief and a bout of the flu that day in November. “I was feeling really unwell on the day,” she recalls.
“But when I put the headset on for the virtual reality, it was as if I’d entered a different world – I was dancing with Björk and instantly forgot how ill I had been feeling. The level of immersion was mind blowing,” she says. “Afterwards, I started feeling really well again – it was amazing.”
At the time, Deepa had been working as a visual artist for eleven years, creating sculptures out of neon lights and glass — she is perhaps best known for her work “Dogs,” a joyful collection of 12 canines inspired by children’s party balloon dogs that lit up London’s Strand during the Lumiere London 2016 festival. But something about VR changed her world instantly. “To quote the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, ‘my life got flipped-turned upside down’ from playing VR in Iceland,” she later wrote.
“When I put the headset on for the virtual reality, it was as if I’d entered a different world. The level of immersion was mind blowing”
The first thing she did upon returning home to Belfast was track down VR experts as collaborators and set up a company called NEON, dedicated to creating immersive experiences.
With her team, she pulled together her first project in about six weeks, premiering RETNE (the word Enter spelled backwards) at SXSW in 2017. The experimental journey for the HTC Vive VR headset follows a character named Lil Mo through a strange world. It has since sold 18,500 downloads.
To produce RETNE so quickly, Deepa teamed up with software designers who helped realise her creative vision. “You know the term 'learning curve'? Well, it was more like a vertical learning trajectory,” she laughs, “but because it’s new tech there are a lot of people in the same position, and people around me have been so good at sharing their knowledge.”
The experience fuelled her ambition. Now, Deepa is working on ground-breaking new project that aims to use VR as a treatment for pain. Described as a breathing app, ‘Breathe’ combines that sense of earthly escape that she first experienced in Iceland, with insights she gathered at a government-sponsored hackathon event at Queen’s University in Belfast called ‘Hack the Pain’.
“I think I was probably, on some subconscious level, inspired to go because my mother suffers from chronic pain,” Deepa adds.
At Hack The Pain, two key things emerged – one, that when people are in pain they need access to a range of tools to help them de-escalate it, and two, that teaching mindful breathing is one of the most beneficial things doctors can offer to their patients.
During the hackathon, Deepa worked with collaborators to design ‘Breathe’ – an app that transports you to a forest, where for three minutes, you’re asked to control your breathing in-time with the VR environment.
Deepa has since tested the tech on a small trial group suffering from chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia, repetitive strain injury and spinal fusion surgery. “They were asked to score their pain before and after using the VR – on a test scale that’s used in psychometric testing for pain, 0 being no pain and 10 high level. The biggest reduction in pain fell from 7 to 3.5,” she says. “All ten people in the group reported a de-escalation in pain.”
Researchers in America are exploring the ways in which VR can be used across healthcare; such as for 'post-traumatic' stress disorder, for reducing amputee pain and as a way to train doctors.
Several clinical studies in the United States support Deepa’s insights. Participants who used VR reported reduced levels of pain and general distress and said they would like to use VR again during painful medical procedures. VR appears to trigger an array of emotional, cognitive and attention processes that act on the body’s pain modulation system, acting as a non-pharmacological pain killer.
Meanwhile, Deepa has joined a wave of tech entrepreneurs working on turning VR into a viable short term treatment for pain that patients can use at home as an alternative to drugs. Deepa’s goal is to expand her trials and get the app to market at a price that’s accessible to people who might be on disability benefit due to their pain.
In 2018, Deepa will travel to San Francisco on a trade mission to meet with health centres and pioneers who have been working in VR pain management. “I think VR is thought of in the mainstream as just for gaming,” she says, “but we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of its health benefits.”
HOW I MAKE ENTREPRENEURSHIP WORK FOR ME
Check In with Your Peers
Meeting with peers locally who are leading evangelists and specialists in the (tech) area is a really good way to check in with where your knowledge is at, how much you’ve learnt, and the research you need to do going forwards as well – especially if you’re usually working just as a single person.
Don’t Overwhelm Yourself
There are many helpful VR industry newsletters you can sign up to that hit your inbox daily. There’s a tightrope to be walked in terms of how much information on the industry you have coming in – making sure it’s useful to you and not taking up too much of your time.
Go to Real World Events
Going to events is important, as there’s a lot happening right now around the immersive tech world. Plus there’s an element of importance to being out and about, so you can talk about what you’re up to.
Allocate Time to Admin
Remember: There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes, funding applications, a large amount of time spent on the compute. It’s important to retain focus on that constant admin but it has to be done. Through those tough, boring, hard bits you need to keep a clear vision of why you’re doing what you’re doing.
I like to be challenged and I cannot stand to be bored. It’s definitely better to be busy with too much to do than to have no focus.
Be Open Minded
I have a business plan being written for the company at the minute but I’m wary of the well worn path of seeking investment, hiring employees, growing a business. For me, it’s more about enabling projects and what the best way for that to happen is. It could be a different model, freelancers coming together on a project by project basis.
Try to Find a Mentor
If you can, get a mentor, somebody you respect. Start by reaching out to the active communities working in your sphere for support. Being a woman in a male dominated industry can be lonely, but Facebook is amazing – there are lots of groups for women in VR.