“The possibilities only extend to as far as our imagination can go, and these are the kind of boundaries that we want to test”.
Extended Reality (XR) might be a term that you are unfamiliar with. But you will be soon. I had the pleasure of interviewing Gautam Murgai, founder of Haven. A small start-up looking to shake up VR space and be at the forefront of the next phase of human computer interaction. They are creating an immersive, user-friendly experience that is a break from our information age that constantly demands our attention.
XR brings a more natural and instinctive way of interacting with computers. Gautam and I discussed the benefits such technology can bring to health and training. Along with the accessibility it brings to educational material and the importance of content for driving the adoption of new XR devices. We also addressed the finer details on how the Haven app will work and the benefits it will bring to our mental health and wellbeing.
You can read the full interview below.
What drove you to start building a Haven?
There are a few factors that have led me to become an entrepreneur and create Haven. Entrepreneurship is something that runs in my blood - my father is an entrepreneur whom I've always looked up to, and I've always been fascinated by businesses and how they work. Additionally, my mother has been a psychologist for as long as I can remember, and growing up, I became interested in the psychological side of things. Eventually, these two interests merged, and I saw an opportunity to start a business that incorporated them both.
I believe that extended reality - encompassing both VR and AR - represents the next phase of human-computer interaction. Furthermore, it's incredible to see society finally acknowledging the importance of mental health, not just for personal well-being, but for productivity and success as well. We have long struggled with acknowledging that everyone faces different mental health challenges, and this shift in attitudes has opened the door for innovative, native solutions. With these two factors in mind, I saw a unique opportunity for Haven to help people at the intersection of extended reality and mental health - and I knew that the time was right to seize that opportunity.
As a product, what will Haven look like? What kind of features will it have? What can customers expect from it?
Haven is a holistic wellness platform that provides a comprehensive solution for individuals to learn about mindfulness, integrate mindfulness practices into their lives, take charge of their mental well-being, and achieve optimal performance. There are three key components to the platform. First, we have the tools for creating and tailoring immersive wellness experiences, which is specifically for the mindfulness guides. Then, we have the main part of the platform, a comprehensive content library of off-the-shelf experiences, ranging from guided meditation to breathwork. Finally, we offer an insights dashboard for tracking and analysing your data.
The Haven experience is incredibly immersive, taking you to a whole new level of mindfulness. Unlike mobile apps like Calm and Headspace, we provide a way more immersive experience. Imagine being in serene environments like an enchanted forest, a distant galaxy or even something way more abstract. With crisp, relaxing sounds, we want to create an immersive experience that leads you to deep relaxation. In a breathing exercise, for example, all the leaves in a forest would blow towards you when you breathe in, and waves would push away from you on the shore when you breathe out.
Although mindfulness practices like meditation and breathwork have been around for thousands of years, it's become increasingly challenging for people to get into them. Our current information age bombards us with notifications and information, reducing our attention span to just a few seconds. It's tough for people to focus on one thing for more than a few minutes. XR and this immersive environment take away the heavy lifting of having to control your focus. In these experiences, your attention is entirely demanded, making it very difficult to be distracted.
Wow and I guess for people living in very urban environments as well, it must be even more beneficial. When you are being deprived of nature in these big concrete jungles, being able to just put on a headset and immerse yourself in a forest or by the beach must be really, really game changing.
Absolutely in the last few years with COVID and everything we saw everyone rush to the country. I grew up in the country myself and I understand how fortunate I was to just be around beautiful scenery, the coast, lakes, things like that. Most of us due to so many different circumstances can’t experience that. Being able to do things like that is a luxury of modern life, it's not so easy for people to have access to these sorts of things.
As well as that, in all honesty, we're not going to try and recreate real life scenarios in VR, because you're never going to be able to match up to the beauty of real life and planet Earth. It's about creating these new spaces, these new places, that people can go to virtually. I think you're able to, through various kinds of visual effects and sound, to evoke the same kind of emotions, without it being real life and realistic.
Currently, VR is not quite at the level of the PS5 with all these hyper realistic imageries. It's way more limited than that. But it only takes certain particle effects and certain visualisations and things like that. To induce a sense of calm, to reduce anxiety and to mitigate your fear and stress, it only takes certain innovations in VR to be able to do that. And I think that even in a limited capacity it's possible to do this.
But it's not necessarily that we just want to help people in urban environments escape to these kinds of scenic environments, although of course we're going to do that as well. It's more about recreating these places and reimagining them. It's so difficult for us to imagine things and with VR, we literally have the potential to create anything, right? You have a blank canvas, yet people all go straight back to creating lakes and beaches and mountain tops and stuff like that. Because it's what we know, it's what we can relate to. But the possibilities only extend to as far as our imagination can go, and those are the kind of boundaries that we want to test.
So, the power of imagination will be able to influence all these different types of places that will be available for consumers to explore as they meditate?
On the subject of wellness and mental wellbeing, what are the benefits that extended reality can bring to mental health and wellness that current methods can't?
In today's fast-paced world, it can be challenging to stay focused and centred. The constant barrage of information and distractions can make it difficult for us to concentrate, which is why many people turn to meditation to help cultivate a sense of calm and inner peace. However, traditional meditation techniques that involve closing one's eyes can be challenging for many people. It can make them feel tired, and their minds can wander, making it difficult to achieve a meditative state.
That's where XR comes in. Unlike traditional meditation, XR provides a more immersive experience that engages the senses and keeps the mind focused on the present moment. With the wide range of environments and visual cues available, it's easier to find a personalized way of meditating that is engaging and interesting. The increased sense of presence can make it easier to let go of distracting thoughts and worries, allowing for a deeper level of relaxation and stress reduction.
Moreover, it offers an opportunity to explore the connection between the body and mind. With a sense of presence and embodiment, XR can provide a more holistic approach to wellness. As most of our stimuli are visual, we can learn so much more from immersive environments and visual cues. This aspect is being explored in various fields, including education, training, and physical health.
It's important to also note that traditional methods of meditation, such as Zen meditation practiced by Buddhists, involve keeping the eyes open. Closing the eyes’ during meditation is not a universal practice, and it can be challenging for many people. XR offers a new approach that is more accessible and engaging for people who are easily distracted, which is most of us in this day and age.
So, it will drive a lot of engagement and keep people's attention. Do you think that on the flip side there's a risk that people could potentially become too engaged? And would there be any sort of safety measures in place, which would stop them from spending hours at a time in these incredibly immersive environments?
Your question raises an important concern that many people have about the impact of XR on our daily lives. However, I believe that we are already spending a significant amount of time glued to screens and devices, and XR has the potential to enhance this time by making it more productive and efficient.
In today's world, whether we are walking on the street, riding the tube, or at the gym, we are constantly interacting with our phones and screens. This is a problem that already exists, and I don't think XR can make it any worse. Rather, it has the potential to provide a more natural and instinctive way of interacting with computers, thereby improving the efficiency and quality of our time spent in digital worlds.
As we move towards extended reality, including mixed reality, it's likely that we will see a shift towards more intuitive and natural forms of interaction, such as voice commands and realistic real-world environments. This could significantly reduce the amount of time we spend hunched over keyboards and staring at little black boxes, which is not how it should be.
I understand the concern about the potential for XR to restrict people and create a dystopian future where we're locked in a virtual world. However, I think it's important to remember that we have been trying to restrict our use of devices for years, and it hasn't worked very well so far. Ultimately, it's up to us to manage our own use of technology and ensure that we strike a healthy balance between the digital and physical worlds.
So, we'll be spending less time on TikTok and more time on Mars and then?
Haha, if you’d like that then yes!
As a product where will Haven be available?
Our objective right now is to launch exclusively in virtual reality and possibly expand into mixed reality in the near future. Currently, the leading XR platform is the Oculus headset, which is a part of the meta ecosystem. We are also considering Pico, which has been more successful on the B2B side, and potentially other such as Sony and HTC. Additionally, we are closely watching Apple's upcoming release later this year, which should be a significant advancement for the extended reality community and promote wider adoption.
Looking towards the future, we aspire to be cross-platform accessible. Providing multiple ways for people to join Haven, such as through their mobile phone or laptop, is essential for accessibility. However, our core focus will always be on XR as we believe it offers a level of immersion that cannot be matched in 2D.
Our ultimate goal is to provide an immersive experience that transcends traditional communication mediums. We believe that XR is the ideal platform to deliver this experience, and we are committed to exploring all possible options to ensure that anyone who wishes to participate in our community can do so, regardless of their preferred device or platform.
How can we make these products more accessible to the wider population in the same way that the iPhone or the PlayStation is?
The adoption of the smartphone was once hindered by its size and cost, just as VR is facing hardware limitations today.
However, recent advancements have brought forth lightweight, wireless headsets with excellent resolution, making VR more accessible. The Oculus Quest 2, priced at $300 to $400, has been the most successful headset to date.
But hardware alone is not enough; content is crucial. Despite the steady influx of new headsets, there remains a lack of content to match them. To drive growth in the VR ecosystem, developers and content creators must create apps that help people in various fields like healthcare, training, education, and productivity.
While commercial applications like PokerStars have found success in VR, it's essential to look towards solutions like Rescape in the medical field and Strivr in training that provide real value to users. By leveraging the immersive capabilities of VR, we can help learners who struggle with traditional 2D methods to gain a deeper understanding of complex subjects.
For instance, VR can enable us to learn about the human heart by experiencing it in a 3D format, where one can observe its functioning and visualize the impact of conditions such as blood clots. Once we can deliver such effective content, we will see a significant shift towards VR-based learning that is accessible to all.
And I guess in turn that will also drive higher levels of engagement, especially among students. It's difficult to control a class of 30 kids, but if they've all got their virtual reality headsets on and they're focusing on what they're seeing. Then that would really improve their ability to learn and grow as well.
While the idea of a classroom full of kids with XR headsets may seem daunting at first, it's important to consider the potential benefits of this technology. Of course, in an ideal world, we would be able to learn and interact with each other in a more physical and tangible way, such as through holograms. However, XR offers a level of accessibility that is unparalleled in certain situations.
Think about all the potential doctors or surgeons in remote areas of Southeast Asia or Africa who may never have access to the education and training they deserve. With XR, they can simply put on a headset and be transported to a virtual classroom where they can learn from some of the best professors in the world and work on virtual cadavers.
This is where the true value of accessibility comes into play. Geographic location, economic status, disability, and other factors no longer have to be a barrier to education and training. It's easy for us to dismiss the idea of using XR for things like safaris or sightseeing, as we often take those experiences for granted. However, for those who may never have the opportunity to physically travel, XR can offer a way to see and experience things they never thought possible.
In this way, XR has the potential to level the playing field and offer disadvantaged individuals access to resources and experiences that were previously out of reach. This technology can provide a more interactive and personal experience, allowing users to feel like they are truly there. While it may not be a perfect solution, it's important to consider the potential benefits of XR and its ability to make education and training more accessible to people all over the world.
I guess you could say it's quite meritocratic as well, giving that access to people who otherwise would not have it.
Are you noticing much competition in this space that you're trying to build in? Where virtual and extended reality is being used for your mental health and wellbeing?
That's a great question, and the answer is not a straightforward one. Comparing the current state of XR to mobile technology or in-person experiences, it's clear that there's still a long way to go. The XR ecosystem is still very nascent, and there are only a handful of players who are doing really well. However, the industry is starting to gain momentum, and more people are beginning to take it seriously.
Later this year, when the highly anticipated Apple headset hits the market, it's going to be a game-changer. Although it's not going to be an affordable device, it's going to create a hype similar to that of the iPhone launch. Apple will create UI metaphors that are not currently present in XR, and we'll see loads of people start to shift over to 3D. Similarly, when Meta releases its headset later this year, it's going to shake up the industry even further.
Despite the looming competition, as a small startup, we're not intimidated by the big players in the market. While they have more resources and money, they also have bureaucratic processes and less agility, which makes it harder for them to pivot and adapt to changing market trends. On the other hand, as a small startup, we're able to move faster, make decisions quickly, and adapt to changes more efficiently.
Moreover, the XR community is very supportive and collaborative. Unlike other industries where people are hesitant to share ideas, everyone is more than happy to help each other out. We all realize that whatever benefit our individual companies bring to XR, it's only going to help the community as a whole.
Wow, that sounds like a really collaborative community then. And it sounds that if you're looking to get into VR development, now is the best time to do it, before it really takes off towards the end of the year.
One hundred percent.
As we have been speaking about how VR is going to be something will blow up in the future. Where do you see Haven in five years’ time?
At Haven, we have a clear long-term roadmap, and we are committed to building a real virtual community where people from all over the world can connect and help each other. Our goal is to create a global community of experts and users who can learn and grow together, with a focus on improving mental wellbeing and overall wellness.
Currently, we are focusing on providing certain types of breathwork and meditation to help people improve their mental health. However, our vision for Haven is much broader than that. We want to offer more specific therapies to people with more serious problems, as well as more general wellness resources for anyone who wants to improve their mental wellbeing.
Imagine being able to join group meditation sessions with thousands of people from all over the world or having private therapy sessions with the best professionals, no matter where you are. Our goal is to create a digital sanctuary where people can come to feel better, be reassured, and get the support and guidance they need.
Haven is not just about relieving stress and anxiety; it's also about improving focus, awareness, personal relationships, and overall performance. We want to help people achieve wellness in every aspect of their lives and reach a more controlled mental state. With Haven, accessibility is key, and we are committed to helping as many people as possible live happier and healthier lives.
Wow and I think the societal benefits of that would be fantastic. As you said at the beginning, people are now opening up more about their mental health. And that’s a really positive change that's being made. It sounds like Haven as a product is really going to contribute to that.
I completely agree. We often see these local support groups depicted in movies and TV shows, but the reality is that it can be incredibly challenging for people to attend these sessions in person, particularly in their own communities where there may be fear of judgment or stigma. I have immense respect for those who have the courage to attend these meetings and share their struggles with others.
However, one of the beauties of this technology is the anonymity it can provide. By entering a virtual space, people can feel a sense of safety and security in knowing that their personal information is not shared and there are no direct personal connections to be made. This allows individuals to open up and speak freely without fear of judgment or negative repercussions.
I truly believe that a digital sanctuary, a haven for people to connect and support each other in a virtual community, can be a powerful tool in providing a safe and accessible space for those in need of support and guidance. The potential for XR to provide a space for individuals to connect and share their experiences with others is truly ground-breaking and has the potential to change lives in a profound way.
How I like to round off these interviews is with this question which is: Within this subject and this topic that we've been discussing, could you recommend any reading materials, any forums, or any piece of media, that the readers of this article should go and check out to learn more about extended reality and virtual reality?
Certainly! Rachel Sibley is a fantastic speaker and a thought leader in this field. Her insights into the potential benefits of virtual reality and the shift from 2D to 3D are truly enlightening. While she may not have produced much recent content, her previous talks are still very relevant and insightful. I highly recommend checking out her work if you're interested in learning more about the power of XR and its potential impact on our lives. As well as Rachel, Herman Narula and Matthew Ball are also some of my favourites!
A special thanks to Gautam for agreeing to speak with me for this interview series. Haven was founded in December 2022 and the company are looking to enter their pre-seed round in the next few months. They expect to launch their product in October later this year. You can join the waiting list to get access to the Haven app here. Or follow them via Linkedin to keep up to date with their latest news.