a person sitting with a VR headset on

Brice Zimmerman

Step one, find your meditation spot. Step two, sit in a comfortable position. Step three, put on your virtual reality headset.

Wait… put on your virtual reality headset?

“I think virtual reality is the next smartphone technology,” said Matthew Golino, founder and CEO of ZenVR. “If you look at where smartphones were in the early 2010s, we are where VR is right now. Give it a decade and VR is going to be ubiquitous. Everyone is going to have it.”

The practice of meditation dates back centuries. Virtual reality devices have only been available to the general public for the last six years, but Golino, a 2020 graduate of Georgia Tech’s human-computer interaction (HCI) master’s program, has developed a program to blend ancient therapeutic methodologies with cutting-edge personal technology.

Originally a project for his master’s degree, Golino and fellow HCI student Rachel Feinberg turned research on meditation into a company and, eventually, a product. Golino pulled from personal experiences dealing with stress and anxiety, specifically during his undergraduate years earning a computer engineering degree at Tech.

“It’s stressful and a lot of people face that stress in different ways,” remembered Golino. “I found myself seeking out a solution. Meditation, as a practice, really helped to ground me and deal with that stress and anxiety.”

After discovering meditation as a student, Golino became a student of meditation. He began reading books, watching videos, and visited a Buddhist monastery in the Atlanta area. When he returned to campus to pursue an advanced degree, he was focused on melding his interest in virtual reality with the expanding role of mindfulness in his everyday life.

For a year, Golino and Feinberg conducted research on meditation. They spoke with teachers, counselors, and meditators to learn how meditation is taught, how it is learned, and what people experience when meditating. Then, they designed a set of 20- to 25-minute classes to teach meditation and embarked on a six-week longitudinal study seeking to uncover what makes meditation difficult to learn and why people struggle to meditate consistently. Fifteen users participated in the research study.

“Qualitatively, they enjoyed it,” Golino recalled. “But, we also saw a significant increase in a whole bunch of mental health metrics in the quantitative data. They decreased their perceived stress, increased their mindfulness, and seemed to learn how to meditate.”

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One week after completing the study, Georgia Tech’s campus shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Societally, stress and anxiety increased all over the planet. But when Golino and Feinberg followed up with their participants, they were pleasantly surprised with what they heard.

“Right as everyone else was stressing out, our participants were coming down,” Golino said. “They all said they kept meditating after the study was over and we looked at that and said, ‘We’ve got something cool here.’”

Determined not to let the time and effort put into ZenVR go to waste, Golino applied for Georgia Tech’s CREATE-X accelerator and was accepted. CREATE-X provided the ZenVR team with the tools, knowledge, and support to turn a research idea into a prototype and then a product.

“We’ve spent a year building this thing,” Golino said. “There are so many projects that are developed and designed, they are awesome projects, and they never go anywhere. The world never gets to see the benefits of the research. I wanted to take this and bring it beyond where it was, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the support systems at Georgia Tech, the professors encouraging me, and without the CREATE-X accelerator to give us that push out the door.”

Golino’s focus switched from academic research to learning about marketing, business tactics, and the process of building a company from scratch.

“The skills we learned in the HCI program were really core to understanding how to conduct the right research, but having CREATE-X and also the ATDC incubator in Tech Square helped in educating us about the business side,” he said.

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Now, ZenVR’s primary goal is to get onto the Oculus store. Currently, a beta version of ZenVR is available, but Golino believes that his program could be useful for the public beyond current VR users.

“Our long-term goal is for this to be deployed in a place like a counseling center that is understaffed, whether it is at a school or a therapist’s office, that wants to teach meditation to their clients,” Golino said. “We see what we have as something that could sit in an office and supplement this practice for these counselors or offer resources for people who come in but can’t get an appointment. They can learn meditation on their own and, maybe, start to deal with their own stress and anxiety with the tools that we give them.”

The immersive, instructional, and adaptive nature of virtual reality environments provides a playground of ideas to work with for Golino and ZenVR. He envisions new meditative virtual spaces that are purposeful and woven into the curriculum.

“One of our goals is to make this environment more dynamic and to make different settings and locations,” Golino noted. “If we take you on top of a mountain, you are going to hear an analogy about mountaintops. If we bring clouds through the meditation classroom, which is something we do now, we want to talk about it in the lesson. Creating more exciting and peaceful places for people to meditate is totally in our future.”

And in the future, virtually nothing is impossible.