Sponsored Having photographed some of the most horrific, fast-moving news stories of the 1990s, Yael Swerdlow believes one of the keys to recovering from trauma and moral injury is for people to slow down and immerse themselves in classical music. But helping people do so means putting some of the fastest workstations and GPUs to work.
Maestro Games CEO Swerdlow began her career as a photojournalist whose assignments included the Rodney King Riots and the Northridge earthquake in early 1990s LA. She also shot the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide for International Medical Corp., as part of what she dryly tags the “man’s inhumanity world tour”, which also took place in Somalia and Southern Sudan.
Today, her Los Angeles – based company is a Social Purpose Corporation (SPC), with the main mission of addressing the consequences of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and moral injury, which is often described as a “wound to the soul” that can occur when individuals commit, fail to prevent, or witness an act that violates their moral beliefs. These problems are not only well-known in military and police circles, but also, increasingly, among other first responders and medical staff, particularly as they deal with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Its unique solution is The Last Maestro™, a headset-based application which combines hi-res imagery, classical music, and a touch of gamification. The application currently offers two visual experiences: one featuring an Alpine sunrise set to Grieg’s Peer Gynt: Morning Mood, and the other an English cottage scene, set to the Bach Cello Suite Number One.
While this might sound rather low impact when addressing such potentially devastating conditions, the seeming simplicity of this technique is precisely the point. The experience can assist personnel and their family members reset their parasympathetic nervous system before, during, or after any stressful event. By enabling this reset, the experience aims to preempt the cycle of burnout.
The technology was tested by The Children’s Hospital of Orange County for seven months in 2020, with researchers concluding there was “preliminary evidence that The Last Maestro may be a useful tool to reduce burnout and post-traumatic stress” with a “statistically significant decrease in self-reported burnout and secondary traumatic stress.”1
It is also being used by MILO, a U.S.-based tactical simulation training range company, as part of “a holistic training” program – i.e., both simulating extremely stressful real-life law enforcement situations, and managing the subsequent comedown. The company recently used The Last Maestro in a co-training event bringing together law enforcement officers and NFL Alumni players – two groups that are expected to operate in high-stress situations with high-stakes outcomes, and both of which often show problems transitioning back to real life, both short and long term.
Now Maestro Games is utilizing the latest Dell technology to meet the growing requirements for its solution. The computing giant’s contribution is “to help make the technology both more usable, and to make it more cost effective and easier to consume,” says Maestro. On the development side, Dell was looking to help the Last Maestro team transition to Dell Precision workstations that can exploit NVIDIA RTX™ GPUs and the recently released Ampere series.
“One of the most important things when you’re looking at VR, is the fact that you do not want people to feel any nausea inside the experience otherwise it no longer carries any weight,” Swerdlow says. This means pressing high-end graphics GPUs into service, “because you’re going to want at least 90 to 120 frames per second, and we’re giving them over 90 frames per second for this experience.”
Beyond raw frame rate, Dell wants to help more people experience The Last Maestro, which in the first instance means being able to go to hospitals, police facilities, veteran centers, and other locations, and serve multiple headsets from, for example, a single, portable workstation. This includes offering a kiosk mode, where users can choose from a menu of experiences.
Today one would consider the HTC VIVE Focus Plus as a peripheral. But when considering organizations – for example, hospitals with 1000 beds – they are going to want to ‘manage’ these headsets to download new experiences or simply track usage.
The issue is further complicated when you think about telemedicine, or getting headsets out to remote locations, for example by streaming The Last Maestro from datacenters. This is where technologies like the NVIDIA CloudXR platform could come into play.
More immediately, the tech firepower that Dell can contribute should help Maestro expand its range of immersive offerings. Swerdlow is aiming to deliver eight to ten different scenarios a year.
She also accepts that Bach – or the classical canon in general – might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and the firm expects to diversify its musical repertoire to be more relevant to other cultures. Examples might include music and imagery from First Nations peoples, the Indian sub-continent, Eastern Asia, Latin and African forms. Swerdlow also expects to include jazz because what happens to the brain while interacting with jazz is different apparently from what happens while interacting with classical music. “It involves getting into the state of flow,” she says.
When healing from moral injury or trauma, creativity and play are one of the essences of healing. We didn’t want to make it structured
What Swerdlow wants to avoid is imposing predetermined patterns of movement on users. “When healing from moral injury or trauma, creativity and play are one of the essences of healing. We didn’t want to make it structured.”
“We get questioned why we’re not doing augmented reality,” she adds. “And the reason is because we absolutely want people to be fully immersed. We don’t want people to be able to see their surroundings, especially if they’re in a hospital room. The idea is to completely take the person away from whatever situation they’re in.”
As part of refining The Last Maestro and making it as effective as possible, they do want to know what is happening to users during the experience. To this end, Swerdlow is exploring partnerships with Titus Human Performance and the biometric wearables firm WHOOP.
“We’re working with both companies to obtain the biometric data, feed it into the Titus platform, get the gaming data from the headsets and pull it all together for reporting at the aggregate and individual level. At the most advanced application, this information could facilitate machine learning. For example, if a person is having a stressful experience, AI would be able to transfer them to a more appropriate experience,” Swerdlow says.
Beyond the needs of first responders, The Last Maestro is investigating broader medical applications, as well as business wellness programs. Music works very powerfully in people suffering from Dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, autism, traumatic brain injury, and strokes. Swerdlow contends that combining the therapeutic power of music with VR and gamification makes a compelling proposition for addressing these conditions.
When Swerdlow confronts skeptics, she refers to how much impact music has had on humanity since the dawn of time. “Music is the language of the soul. When I talk about the spirituality aspect and then beauty and joy and awe, well beauty and joy and awe are intangibles, right? They’re not something that you can scientifically say, ‘Oh, this is beautiful, or this is joyful, but there’s no lack of evidence of the impact of those things.”
There’s also no lack of need for what the company wants to deliver. “Humanity’s in pain, societies are falling apart,” she says. “And it’s because we’re moving so fast that we have lost the ability to be joyful. We’ve lost the ability to see beauty in our daily lives. And that’s part of why we’re trying to use these short experiences that we’re creating to give people that ability back.”
If nothing else, she says, “The idea with Maestro is to just slow everything down and hopefully give the folks who use it moments of pause.”
Sponsored by Dell
1 Impact of an Immersive, Virtual Reality (VR) Experience on Healthcare Provider Burnout and Stress, Jennifer Hayakawa, DNP, CNS, CNRN, CCRN-K; Susan See, MSN, RN, CPHON; John Schomberg, PhD, MPH, CHOC Children’s Hospital, Orange, CA