How Design and Tech Are Redefining Wellness

Image courtesy of Inscape.

Image courtesy of Inscape.

Wellness. The mere word conjures visions of healing crystals, herbs, and ohms. Today, however, there’s a new type of wellness emerging, one led not by aligned stars, but by aligned design - a wellness 2.0, if you will. Enabled by technology, backed by research, and spearheaded by engineers and computer scientists, these purposeful innovations, from depression-detecting apps to hugging machines, are made to ease an anxious world.

Scent is one of the ripest realms for wellness design. We’ve known for centuries that odors impact mood and cognition; that’s why aromatherapy exists, after all. But our knowledge of how odor impacts mood has thus far been fairly limited: researchers only knew odors were processed through the piriform cortex. Today’s cutting-edge brain scanning tech, however, now gives doctors a better idea of which odors catalyze which chemicals in the brain. For example, we now know birch increases the theta waves that induce sleep. 

These findings are in turn helping designers evolve scent from a sensual accessory into a mindful supplement, formulating blends for specific physiological functions – from lowering heart rate to improved breathing. For example, the British supplement company The Nue Company generated a “functional fragrance” used to reduce stress faster than you can say “serenity now.” Meanwhile, the Cleveland Clinic's Innovation Lab is developing “phyto-inhalants:” plant-based aromatherapy compounds made to alleviate anxiety, nausea, and even physical pain. That’s pretty FAROUT!

An interior from Google’s “A Space for Being,” courtesy of Google.

An interior from Google’s “A Space for Being,” courtesy of Google.

Elsewhere in medicine, a sector typically defined by traumatic sterility, the International Flavors and Fragrances foundation uses scent to treat Alzheimer's and dementia by leveraging familiar odors, like those of a baseball game, to trigger forgotten memories. And medical supply companies too are looking toward design to warm up the cold examining room – for example, FeverScout’s wearable thermometers.

Similar progress is being made in the aural domain, where researchers and composers are using specific note combinations to influence listeners’ moods. One of the more high-profile applications comes from the meditation app Calm, which recently commissioned the musicians Moby and Sigur Rós for immersive, ambient albums formulated for ultimate relaxation. And Warner Music Group's new Arts Music division is collaborating with the audio ecosystem-creators at Endel to score functional soundscapes designed to elicit sleep, focus, and relaxation.

In Endel’s process, algorithms and circadian rhythms are synced to create the most melodious sound for any occasion, from getting psyched to winding down. While company CEO Oleg Stavitsky describes his work as a continuation of New Wave and ambient music pioneered in the 1970s, he tells trend forecasting platform LS:N that emerging technology take’s Endel’s aural therapy to the next level:

With new technology, companies like ours are able to take those concepts to another level and realize their full potential. We’re entering the era of adaptive, personalized digital soundscapes that will improve people’s lives by working in the background.

The meditation company Inscape also uses sound to enhance the user experience, but they go even further by melding it with chromotherapy to instigate and amplify particular emotions. As Inscape founder Khajak Keledjian told The Culture Trip, “We included sound sessions in our offering because we understand how powerful they are when it comes to empowering deep rest and relaxation."

And the immersive media startup Wavepaths offers similar treatments, but with a trippy twist: they hired composer Jon Hopkins and artist Sukubizm to use sight, sound, and psychological cues to replicate psychedelic therapy. It’s now offered online via their app, and offline, in their “secular sanctuary” pop-ups. Mendel Kaelen, the group’s CEO and a trained neuroscientist who studied sound’s impact on psilocybin treatments, told Wired that Wavepaths wants users to "feel the music to such a degree that you’re transported." This experience could be “potentially so meaningful it stimulates change” – like LSD, only without the risk of a bad trip.

Google’s “Vital” Room, courtesy of Google.

Google’s “Vital” Room, courtesy of Google.

Not to be outdone, Google teamed with Johns Hopkins University’s Arts + Mind Lab to create a three-room model home, “A Space for Being,” that uses color, sound, texture, and even proportion to alter the resident’s mood, breathing rate, heart rate and other physiological functions. One room, “Essential,” leverages intimate and organic elements, such as woolen tapestries, to evoke coziness; colorful “Vital” awakens visitors' playful side; and the earth-toned “Transformative” room uses minimal design to mollify over-stimulated senses. 

“With neuroscience now, you can prove the things that designers and artists have always known: that aesthetics – which is not just making things look pretty, but enlivening all the sensory systems… affects our brain, our physiology and our wellbeing,” Ivy Ross, Google’s head hardware designer, writes of that project.

Full body serenity’s the name of the game with designer Lucy McRae’s Compression Cradle. Unveiled at Milan Design Week last year, McRae’s astounding apparatus hugs the participant in a vacuum-packed embrace that’s meant to alleviate technological isolation.

Kind of like a weighted blanket on steroids, Mcrae says, “The Compression Cradle is a machine that affectionately squeezes the body with a sequence of aerated volumes that hold you tight – in an attempt to prepare the self for a future that assumes a lack of human touch.” Just as a human hug can produce euphoric effects, such as dopamine release, so can McRae’s self-operated piece–giving whole new meaning to self-satisfaction.

Google’s “Essential” Room, courtesy of Google.

Google’s “Essential” Room, courtesy of Google.

But the most FAROUT, mind-bending expressions of mind-altering wellness design come from computer science, such as Affective Computing that teaches machines how to recognize and respond to real human emotions. These programs are laying the foundation for responsive robot nurses, video games that adjust to the players’ vibe, and even cars that can detect emerging road rage.

Equally impressive, researchers at Sofia University’s Transformative Technology Lab build “science-based hardware and software that can produce reliable and positive changes in the human psychological experience.” One such creation, the app Ginger.io, monitors users’ phone behavior, picking up on sudden shifts that may indicate depression or anxiety, both developments often blamed on technology itself. Now technology’s fighting back, for wellness.

In addition to offering users whole new sensorial, cognitive, and psychological experiences, the rise of wellness design shows again how seemingly disparate disciplines — medicine, psychology, technology, and design — can synthesize something greater than their sum— in this case, serenity.