Like so many people working in creative roles, Mia Thomsett often finds herself unable to stop her mind from turning over problems during the night. She’ll wake abruptly, usually in the pre-dawn hours, her body still in park, but her mind already in fourth gear.
“It wasn’t so much that I had trouble falling asleep. I would wake up at 4 a.m. with my mind just racing,” says Thomsett, who by day is creative director at Vancouver agency One Twenty Three West.
She turned to distractions like reading and podcasts, specifically chosen to give her mind something else to focus on. “I have a hard time shutting my brain off, so for me distraction works a little bit better,” she says. A copywriter by trade, she’d sometimes try exercises like visualizing herself drawing letters of the alphabet. Frustratingly though, the ZZZs just wouldn’t come.
It was after a conversation with fellow insomniac Eric Mosher, a Vancouver-based producer and audio engineer who has worked on campaigns for One Twenty Three West clients including Sleeman, that the pair came up with the idea for an app-based product that provides users with an escape and distraction from the thoughts that keep them up at night.
The result, which hit Apple’s App Store just this week (with an Android version to follow) is “Emmerse: A journey in sound.” It uses “soundscapes”—fully immersive audio experiences that replicate the audio experience of being in a cabin by the lake, say, or strolling through Paris at night—to take people out of their own head. The app says that it lets users “travel the world through sound.”
There is free trial content, but Emmerse is a subscription product, with users paying $6.99 per month or $49.99 a year to access a library of more than 70 experiences (new content is being added monthly). Current experiences available include “A hike in Whistler BC,” “Night Market in Austria,” and “Walk in a Windy Forest.”
Users choose between 15-, 30- or 60-minute experiences that include soundscapes captured by Thomsett and Mosher around their native B.C., but also by people as far afield as Portugal and Korea. “We literally want to have sound from all around the world,” says Thomsett.
Emmerse is a small entrant in the fast-growing relaxation app space that has exploded during the pandemic, and is dominated by two major players in Headspace and Calm. The former has garnered more than 70 million downloads since its 2010 debut, and last year merged with the video-based therapy service Ginger in a deal that valued the new entity at $3 billion. Calm,an Apple App of the Year winner in 2017, has been downloaded more than 100 million times and claims more than four million subscribers.
Those apps tend to present one sound, like rain or a waterfall, playing on an infinite loop with little variation. Emmerse, says Thomsett, is designed to be “non-linear” in its presentation. “It’s a little bit more of an immersive experience,” she explains. “If we had a waterfall, you might hear somebody walking towards it, and then you might hear some birds and a cabin door opening.”
The app exclusively uses binaural recording to create a three-dimensional sound experience for users. “You’re recording [sound] exactly the way a human hears, so when you play it back it really feels like you’re there,” explains Thomsett. “If there’s a bird that’s flying from left to right, you’d actually hear the bird sound move from left to right.”
The app also incorporates urban soundscapes capable of putting users in Paris at night, sitting on a New York subway, or walking through the streets of Seoul. “It’s not your typical standing on the beach nature sounds,” says Thomsett.
“In advertising we’re always trying to find a way to communicate with people that’s different, and it’s the same thing with our product: We want to make sure we’re offering people something that’s going to stand out. Everything from the user experience to our logo is informed by creating a nice cohesive brand.”
As with other agency employees who have decided to branch out and create a product of their own, the shift from helping brands develop and market a product, to creating her own product and brand was enlightening for Thomsett.
“For everybody who does my job, it’s all about learning,” she says. “Making my own app, learning how to market it, and being the client is a lot more learning. It’s great to pick up projects that are not just the next ad campaign, just to force yourself to see what else you can do. I’m really proud that Eric and I had this idea, and pushed through and made it happen.”
Breaking through in the crowded app market can be extraordinarily difficult, with research suggesting that between 80-90% of apps are abandoned after just one use. Thomsett, though, feels she’s created a product that addresses a critical consumer need at precisely the right time.
“I hope that we can help people,” she says. “I love the idea of giving people a bit of an escape, especially during the pandemic, when we’re not able to travel.” Hear that? That’s the sound of a good idea.