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A VR massage chair made me both happy and sad

Engadget Engadget 3/09/2016 Daniel Cooper
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA © Provided by Engadget OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA © Provided by Engadget

One of the delights on show here at IFA was Medisana's VR massage chair, which pairs one of its high end devices with an Oculus Rift. Rather than sitting in a shopping mall and viewing your fellow patrons as a robot paws at your back, you can be transported somewhere more romantic. The VR headset is used to play 180-degree videos of beautiful foreign locations that correspond to a pre-programmed massage routine. The five-minute demo loop that I experienced was moderately relaxing, although I worry about its implications for the future.

As soon as I was seated and the headset strapped to my face, I was asked to pick a language and choose if I wanted to be massaged by a man or a woman. Once my choice was made the video begins, placing me on a beach in Normandy on France's Atlantic Coast. I'm seated upright, watching and listening to the waves as they crash against the coast. Soon after, the "masseuse" walks into frame and begins to talk, telling me to relax and breathe deeply. Once they finished speaking, they moved behind the camera, waving their hands into frame as a warning that the program is about to kick in.

From there on in, it's basically the sort of gentle massage that you normally receive if you've ever used one of these chairs. Motors kick into action, pushing and pulling your muscles in the hope of wringing out the tension. But instead of the hustle and bustle of IFA, I was watching noisy waves and trying to relax a little during this busy trade show. The system is just a demo for now, but Medisana is hoping to offer this as a product for various businesses and individuals that can afford such gear.

I did ask how much it'd cost to take this platform home right now, and the figure comes to around €4,000 ($4,350). The company is hoping that, should interest be there, to offer a wider variety of VR programs, all developed in-house. In addition, it's considering building an API that would allow third-parties to produce their own movies and massage routines. That would enable people to bring a smartphone-based VR platform to a public massage chair and enjoy a more tailored routine.

But here's the thing: as I watched people line up for a go in the VR massage chair, I suddenly felt oddly sad. I think it's because, fundamentally, it's another step on the road to a future that the movies told us would be dystopian. Take Total Recall, for instance, in which people too poor to travel on their holidays have artificial memories of vacations implanted into their brains. Rather than being able to enjoy real experiences, we could wind up in a world where the only thing available to us are artificial facsimiles.

But then, on the other hand, given how our precious planet's resources are being squandered, it makes sense to discourage people to travel unnecessarily. Imagine the thousands of carbon-intensive journeys that future generations of this technology could spare. Even then, it just feels as if we could be led down a road towards a world where we're encouraged never to travel, or even aspire to travel, in favor of this sort of creation. So long as everyone agrees that VR massage chairs aren't a substitute for a real trip to Normandy, then I think we're okay... aren't we?

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