Interactive Installation to Music Wellness App: Our Journey to VIBE

Carol Liu
May 6, 2020
5 min read
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How often can a tech startup say they began as an interactive art installation? Perhaps not many. Yet this unconventional backstory gives meaning to the work we do at LUCID.

Since we released our iOS app VIBE: Calm, Focus, Sleep; we’ve been encompassed by code sprints, user research, digital marketing and other daily activities of a tech startup. Funny enough, many of our users are likely unaware that its algorithm was once housed within a translucent geometric dome. One that changed colours from within, playing music that reacted in real-time to a person’s heart rate and brain waves.

“We were known as the dome people for a while,” says CTO and co-founder Aaron Labbé of the physical installation which garnered the company significant media and public attention.

What started off as his undergraduate thesis project at Ryerson University quickly gained traction, and went on to exhibit around Toronto in spaces such as the Museum of Contemporary Art and Artscape Daniel’s Launchpad. Inspired by his own journey with mental health, Aaron focussed in on ways that music could help remedy psychological distress. Combining light and sound therapy, he created the immersive and interactive multi-sensory dome titled ‘LUCID’.

The feedback from installation-goers was immensely positive. They felt an immediate sense of relief and relaxation that they’d never experienced before. Although the dome created a tremendous audiovisual spectacle, it wasn’t the end goal for LUCID. Our core goal was always finding innovative solutions to the question: how can music truly disrupt mental health? And the key factor to that? Accessibility.

“We think about accessibility as core to our product design. Privacy and accessibility are two lenses that we’re continually looking at form and function through,” says CEO and co-founder Zach McMahon.

Thinking back on the most challenging phase of his mental health, Aaron says, “This is the solution I never had. I never went to galleries; I never went to these spaces because I couldn’t afford to. But I did use apps, and I know apps are affordable and available. Now we know there’s people halfway across the world who are using the app, which is huge.”

One in two Canadians will have experienced a mental health challenge by the time they turn 40. For the portion of the population that lives in remote areas, or in the low to mid-income bracket, there are huge barriers to healthcare. Traditional therapy methods require extensive commitments of time and money that many are unable to invest.

To truly disrupt the mental health space, we need to create an instantaneously available intervention. An experience that can be accessed by anyone who needs it — anytime and anywhere. With the app, we’re able to reach users from around the world, unrestricted by physical barriers of time and space — unlike the dome. Bringing this experience to people on a global level is a huge exhibition opportunity, but also the ultimate design challenge.

Coming from the curatorial space has its advantages. Many of our app users and early beta testers were first captivated by the dome experience. They fell in love with the idea of a personalized musical intervention as an alternative aid for feelings of stress and anxiety. Now — they have a form of the dome that fits into the palm of their hand.

Our main goal for VIBE is to create a mobile experience that is just as immersive and impactful. An app that can truly transport its user out of their current environment, to states of deep relaxation and focus. The app offers modes such as Calm, Focus, Sleep and Energize — to give people not only interventions when they’re feeling stressed, but also offering assistance in other challenges of daily life.

Using high quality binaural audio, the app plays 3D nature ambience recorded in unique natural landscapes around the world. The landing screen fades between colour gradients that are reminiscent of the LUCID dome’s light panels. But the key component of the VIBE experience is the algorithm — the ability to understand the user’s emotional states and personalize therapeutic music based on that. With each use, the algorithm becomes more tailored to the user’s preferences and generates new soundtracks for wellness.

There’s still a long way to go — and we’ve just taken the first step. When we launched our iOS App this past January, we set off towards designing a technology that is as accessible, as it is innovative. As we build and develop VIBE for new devices, we continue to implement and iterate on the lessons from our physical installation.

What we know for sure is this: our mobile app can reach people across the world. People we can’t physically touch, and people who may have physical and economic barriers to healthcare — and that makes a world of difference.