This startup is using VR to bring kids back to reality

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, teletherapy has become a more common way for therapists to meet their clients. A few Philly tech founders felt they could go one step further.

Christian Ulstrup and Beko Jango met at a venture-backed San Francisco company focused on medical device technology. The couple told Technically they both thought that using a 3D environment could be helpful for connecting people, and 18 months ago began a project for virtual spaces that could help people open up to therapy. They brought in a third founder, Monet Goldmana licensed family and marriage therapist, to complete the telecare concept.

The trio are now co-founders of Virgos, a virtual reality landscape where therapists can meet their clients. They launched a pilot program in October 2021, developing the platform using the WebXR standard and AWS for the backend.

“We just suspected that the use of virtual reality, the use of virtual spaces, could be a very powerful medium for healing and connection,” said CEO Ulstrup. The idea goes against “much of the story about technology that atomizes and isolates, which it certainly has in many cases.”

With a tagline of “back to reality through virtual reality”, Virgils has also set his sights on serving some of the most active and impressionable internet users.

VR for connecting with young people

By talking to parents and the therapists using their platform, they realized that there was also a gap in educating children on how to live healthy lives in the world of technology. For example, overuse can negatively impact mental health and cause feelings of isolation or anxiety.

“We target young people because they have the most to gain,” said CTO Jang. “Being a teenager is hard. Digital media makes it even more difficult. They need help navigating the digital frontier.”

In May 2022, they launched the six-week Virgils fellowship program, inviting teen and pre-teen boys into cohorts led by a licensed virtual space therapist:

The cohorts meet once a week to discuss topics about figuring out who you are, figuring out what you want for your future, and practicing skills such as socialization, emotional intelligence, and empathy. Therapists who lead the fellowship program are also those who participate in Virgils’ clinical trial program.

The co-founders, who work out of Center City and Northern Liberties, hope to soon welcome girls of that age group, as well as mixed-gender groups.

“We believe it is very important that all participants learn how to develop healthy relationships, how to avoid toxic interactions, how to be truly supportive and how to interact with each other in the digital age,” Ulstrup said.

Meeting teens where they are

Sessions take place on Virgils’ virtual reality platform, where each participant is a polyhedron-like avatar. Ulstrup and Jang said they made the decision early on that all avatars in this world would look non-human.

“It’s like going to another place,” said the CEO. “And one of the things that is offered to the users is one. It’s almost like having a mask on, which makes things a little bit more comfortable.”

He said they got feedback that many kids didn’t want to show their faces in front of the camera, so they decided to let the kids meet as avatars until the last session, when they had the option to turn on their cameras.

“An important thing we believe in is meeting the kids where they already are,” Ulstrup said. “And so that they feel really comfortable and take that first step into a virtual space that’s engaging, where they don’t feel like they have to show their face.”

Virgils doesn’t offer clinical psychotherapy, so they don’t work with health insurance. Instead, they bill parents directly for the fellowship sessions. Virgils is also working to establish a 501(c)(3) non-profit foundation to provide scholarships to qualified applicants.

What’s next for Virgils?

The company’s main focus right now is the Virgils fellowship, rather than the therapist platform, Jang said.

Virgils has just finished his first cohort and is starting a second. After children complete the program, they can join an ongoing group called Virgils’ “inner ring” to continue learning and discussing what is happening in the world and in their lives. The founders also discuss how to meet each group in person.

Both founders said they want to build relationships with the families participating in the fellowships and create long-term programs for children to help them continue developing healthy habits. Ulstrup said he hopes to eventually see this type of program as an addition to existing education and healthcare institutions.

“We think the healthiest relationship you can have with virtual media, with digital media, is one where you’re grounded in reality first and foremost,” Ulstrup said.

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