The American Psychological Association (APA) has been conducting annual studies since 2007 on stress, its sources, intensity, and how people respond to mental and physical stressors. As to be expected, Covid-19 has had a substantial impact on the lives of Americans. Nearly 8 in 10 adults (78%) say the pandemic has been a significant source of stress, with 67% saying they have experienced increased stress throughout the pandemic. Stress gets in the way of quality life, including quality sleep. American adults report sleeping an average of 6.7 hours a night — less than the minimum recommendation of seven to nine hours.6 In addition, 42 percent of adults report that their sleep quality is fair or poor, and 43 percent report that stress has caused them to lie awake at night. Only 20 percent of adults say the quality of their sleep is very good or excellent. Many adults report negative consequences of not getting enough sleep. More than half (53 percent) report feeling sluggish or lazy, 38 percent report feeling irritable, 29 percent report they have trouble concentrating and 25 percent report feeling no motivation to take care of responsibilities.
Research from the past several decades has provided evidence that music-based interventions effectively treat stress. Specifically, music has been shown to be effective in clinical music therapy and music and medicine. However, clinical music therapy remains prohibitive for most.
I addressed the importance of immersive sound when I covered the launch of Bay Area based startup Spatial. COO Darrell Rodriguez—formerly the COO of Electronic Arts and president of LucasArts and an ex-Disney Imagineer—says that the company believes that immersive sound has potential as a therapeutic tool. To that end, Spatial worked with the California Institute of the Arts and Roger Holzberg, founder of Reimagine Well, a company that creates immersive experiences for patients delivered via screens and virtual reality headsets. Holzberg and CalArts professor Shannon Scrofano teach a course at the school called Healthcare by Design. The spring 2021 iteration of the class operated in partnership with Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, allowing students to help design tranquil restorative experiences at the Santa Clarita Valley facility. Among these experiences is a tranquility room designed to be used by families at the end-of-life phase of the human journey as an integrated part of the palliative care program.
UK startup Portal Labs shares a similar vision and wants to create calming and enriching experiences for better health for everyone. Not to be confused with the Meta device, Portal is a spatial audio app currently available in the Apple App Store and leverages dynamic head tracking available with AirPods Pro, AirPods 3rd Generation, AirPods Max and Beats Fit Pro. Rather than using Dolby Atmos, as Apple does for music and movies, Portal partnered with Atmoky to deliver an optimized experience for soundscaping called Ambisonics. This represents sound as a spherical soundfield rather than channels or objects and is most commonly used with Virtual Reality, allowing for a more natural and realistic reproduction of soundscapes, especially when played through headphones. Co-founder Nick Daniels realized the impact his surroundings had while on a camping trip in New Zealand following a period of burnout and depression. Daniels shares on the company website: “It was on the flight home, unable to sleep in a cramped long haul economy seat, that occurred to me…What if we could bottle up the essence of the world’s greatest surroundings and make them accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime?” This is how Portal was born.
The app helps users focus, sleep, or escape through sound, smart lighting and visuals. Users enter through a portal into an all-immersive experience that takes them into the Redwood National Park of California, a barley field in Devon, or sitting by a log fire.
As people started to download the app and leave comments, the Portal team realized the impact they could have was even broader than they thought. For example, being able to separate work from life while being locked down, especially for those who once relied on the commute home to mark that separation. Or reconnecting with nature when, at the height of the pandemic, being outdoors was more stressful for people. Or for dementia and Alzheimers patients who benefit from being connected with nature but might have limited access due to their condition. Portal also helped people find calm and manage extremely stressful events in their day/life, from Air Ambulance paramedics between calls, war veterans experiencing PTSD to even a woman experiencing heart arrhythmia. So while the team doesn’t want its app to be a replacement for nature, it does believe it is a way to connect with nature, maybe even rediscover it whenever circumstances prevent us from doing so in real life.
While, for now, Portal is a consumer app that relies on app purchase and subscription revenue, there are many opportunities in the corporate world as the trend to focus on employee wellbeing continues as companies return to the office. Head of Member Success, Stu Chan, shared in an interview: “At the beginning of November, we partnered with the Medical Protection Society, the world’s leading member-owned, not-for-profit protection organization for doctors, dentists and healthcare professionals worldwide. As the impact of COVID was felt throughout the healthcare system, the organization wanted to help its members at a time of extreme stress and burnout.”
Portal Labs relies on in-app purchases and subscriptions to be able to support and further develop their solution. Opening to investors would certainly accelerate developments such as an Android app version. The team, however, wants to stay true to its goals of making a difference in people’s lives. Daniels knows all too well that, sometimes, when investors are involved, priorities shift to put revenue and return on investment first, which would no longer align with his vision.
May is Mental Health Month, a good reminder that taking time to focus, escape or just have a good night’s sleep helps lower our stress levels and increase our overall wellbeing. So whether you are using technology like Portal or a good old-fashioned walk in the park, do take time for yourself.
Disclosure: The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column.