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San Antonio Virtual Reality Nonprofit Brings Relaxation And Wellness To Its Users

Blue VR relaxation therapy.jpg
Studio Bahia
A virtual reality nature-scape.

A San Antonio nonprofit organization named Studio Bahia wants to make virtual reality therapy accessible to local residents, with plans to expand through Texas and the nation. Originally founded as a response to help Syrian and European refugees — specifically children with trauma — Studio Bahia wanted to identify how to reach them with language and culture barriers in the way.

"The reason we decided to do this (VR therapies) is because other language-based approaches had failed. Approaches such as a psychologist coming and talking to a refugee. A refugee does not have the tradition of opening up to a stranger," said Allen Olson-Urtecho, one of the founders.

They noticed how easy it was to access VR through mobile devices the parents carry. Studio Bahia has taken the lead in designing therapeutic landscapes available on mobile devices. This made VR accessible for the refugees and now the company wants to make it available to anyone who has a smart phone.

Studio Bahia
Pink VR, used for chronic pain.

This nonprofit operates out of San Antonio, and includes collaborations across Texas and worldwide. The team of five is made up of virtual reality designers Christina Chrysanthopoulou and Renia Papathanasiou, clinical psychologist Dr. Cindy Dominique, Ivy Georgieva and Allen Olson-Urtecho, with PhDs. in VR therapies.

Olson-Urtecho first touched on the idea when he saw how language and culture barriers could be a challenge. To work around this, the team designed sets and narratives in the storyboard and takes the time to produce and document designs that are non culture specific and offer relaxation and healing.

"We had to innovate and try something totally different. So all our therapies don't have language. And it works really well because virtual reality is so powerful, it's such a powerful tool," Olson-Urtecho said.

Studio Bahia
Aqua therapy, for Alzheimer's.

The organization provides virtual reality therapy for an embodied learning experience and contributes to a person's wellness through distraction therapy, prenatal and postpartum instruction, and even CPR practice.

Studio Bahia offers a multitude of landscapes; Purple VR — used to reduce anxiety, Aqua VR — a therapy for people with Alzheimer's Disease, Pink VR — a therapy for chronic pain.

The company's VR designs also include distraction therapy, a scenic walkthrough that aims to relieve pain during difficult experiences such as medical procedures.

In November 2020, Studio Bahia won the"10 Most Promising Companies" award at the Texas Life Science Forum, for their innovative, low cost model and outreach to large vulnerable populations.

Now, the company is producing what it calls user-friendly, accessible, and affordable headsets for phones to attach to, and downloadable VR wellness walkthroughs for mobile devices. For every VR headset sold to a hospital, Studio Bahia donates to nurse's unions, veterans, and other vulnerable populations in Texas.

"Creating an atmosphere and a feeling, we're able to offer certain situations that bring about psychological benefits to people," added Olson-Urtecho.

When asked what VR wellness will look like in ten years, Olson-Urtecho speaks of a more personalized experience for every person, one embodying more senses and adding to the healing journey, training, or just relaxation — available to any person.

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Jia Chen is a freelance journalist and photographer for Texas Public Radio. She began with TPR working as the Bexar County selected Summer Arts Intern in 2021. Her coverage includes arts & culture, technology, politics, and more. She holds a BA in Communication from University of Texas at San Antonio and has lived in San Antonio for over 20 years.