Therapeutic VR Capstone


To create a virtual reality “Chakra Healing Garden” environment consisting of seven levels, each level representing a different chakra and containing its associated symbols.

Technologies involved include various 3D modeling software (Maya, Zbrush) and Unreal Engine to create the environment, plus Oculus Rift or Gear VR headset.


Semiotic communication for health and wellness

Hippocrates used the Greek word sêmeiotikos (“observant of signs”) to describe the condition where visible signs produced by the body are clues to the invisible processes taking place – signs are a stimulus that indicate something occurring within. In the late 1800’s, logistics scholar Charles Sanders Peirce was instrumental in developing the field of Semiotics (“the science of meaning”) and stated that real objects produce meanings in our brains via signs that are interpreted by our senses.

Over the years, designers have developed the art and science of visual communication, using the psychological and symbolic aspects of colors, shapes, patterns, textures, etc. to communicate in ways that go beyond simple verbal communication. The aspects of design are signs that signal meaning to the viewer, often on a subconscious level. Designers are challenged to create visual representations of abstract concepts. As technology has progressed, designers have gone beyond 2D graphic design to embrace new interactive technologies and 3D media, expanding into Virtual Reality. More than anything, designers are communicators of information.

In addition to the commercial applications of visual communication (branding, advertising, marketing, etc) designers are exploring new areas to solve wicked problems –social or cultural problems that are difficult or impossible to solve. These are the problems — poverty, sustainability, equality, and health and wellness — that plague our cities and our world and that touch each and every one of us. These problems can be mitigated through the process of design.” – John Kolko.

The area upon which I would like to focus for my Capstone Project is exploring the connection between mental and physical health, and how as a designer I can communicate using semiotics within interactive virtual environments in a therapeutic way to promote health and a sense of wellbeing.

VR “Chakra Gardens” Meditation Environments

One of the inspirations for my project comes from my experience with Yoga and meditation. One of the meditation techniques I have found particularly helpful is to meditate one at a time on each of the seven major Chakras. Chakra is a Sanskrit word for “wheel.” It is believed the seven majors chakras are spinning vortexes of energy aligned along the spine, beginning at the “root” or tailbone, and ascending up through the sacral, solar plexus, heart, throat, 3rd eye, and finally crown chakra. Each chakra has its own unique associations of colors, elements, spiritual aspects and emotional qualities.

I would like to explore the possibility that these associated qualities of the chakras can be used as signs to send signals from the brain and subconscious directly to the body in a therapeutic way to promote positive feelings of health and wellness.

Healing Gardens

Another of my inspirations for this project is the concept of healing gardens – landscaped environments often found in and around hospital grounds to promote personal feelings of recovery. “An expression of design and health in landscape architecture is to be found in the movement around healing gardens, i.e. gardens that in different ways may influence the visitor in a positive way.” (Cooper Marcus & Barnes, 1999).These gardens often incorporate not only plants and hardscape features, but also sculptures and water features.

Addressing “wicked Problems”

I believe my project could assist:

  • People who can’t go outside and walk around a healing garden in real-time. People who are not ambulatory, who may be receiving infusions or hooked up to other medical equipment are unable to leave the confines of the hospital. Could they somehow still benefit from a healing garden in virtual reality?
  • The divide between spiritual and physical treatment. Many physicians/therapists are skeptical or lack knowledge of how to integrate meditation, mindfulness practice, stress reduction techniques, etc. into a treatment program, leaving patients without access to holistic approaches to treatment.
  • Meditation may not be readily accessible to people. Those who are under a great deal of stress or who are unfamiliar with meditation techniques may need assistance with achieving a meditative state.

Learning Objectives

A greater understanding of 3D modeling techniques overall, and filling in my knowledge gaps:

  • rigging for animation
  • creating maps, (bump, texture, ambient occlusion, etc) for excellent surface appearance
  • better understanding of Zbrush capabilities and workflows
  • Acquiring more knowledge of the pipeline from creating high-quality sculpts to exporting them as assets
  • More thorough understanding of Unreal Engine and it’s capabilities, including interactivity with Blueprints
  • Rendering, lighting and sound for more realistic environments

In additional to creating a 3D VR environment, I will also be reading several academic papers and doing research on the mind-body connection and how VR environments can be used therapeutically. For instance, the University of Washington Seatle and U.W. Harborview Burn Center collaborated on a VR project called “Snow World” in which patients used VR goggles to enter an immersive VR environment while going through a painful procedure. Researchers confirmed via MRI scans there was significant reduction in pain-related brain activity when patients accessed the VR environment. VR environments have also been studied for their use in treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias. This research will lead up to phase two of my capstone – a written thesis that I will undertake during Spring 2018 semester. My goal for my thesis is the use the VR environment I created in the Fall to work with doctors and therapists to do user testing and explore the possibilities and effectiveness of the “Chakra Healing Garden” project.