I had a robot give me ‘the world’s most advanced massage’

The vibe of Aescape’s massage rooms is familiar: soft lighting, inviting earth tones, a fresh smell, and stylish chairs with fluffy pillows that you only use to daintily pile your clothes on top of. Like a typical spa, the room also has a massage table, but instead of the classic flat surface covered in a white sheet, it’s a large, pill-shaped device. And then there’s the pair of large robotic arms.

Aescape is a New York City-based company that has created an “AI-enhanced” massage table. As a person who is highly skeptical of robots but loves massages, I volunteered to find out if a robot massage can live up to the incredibly satisfying experience of a massage by a human.

Aescape calls itself “The World’s Most Advanced Massage” but will it alleviate the stubborn back knots of a middle-aged mom who walks everywhere but refuses to stretch or properly hydrate and spends all day hunched over a laptop? On a Monday afternoon in February, me and my aches and pains visited Aescape’s offices and test labs for an appointment with the massage table to find out.

Futuristic spa vibes. Image: Annie Colbert/PopSci

Now at this point you may be wondering but scared to ask: Are you naked for the massage? The answer is no. Instead of stripping down and awkwardly positioning yourself under a sheet, Aescape provides “Aerwar apparel” for rent or purchase. The tight-fitting dark gray pants and matching shirt feel like a combination of yoga gear and a wetsuit. After squeezing into the stretchy ‘fit and pulling my hair back, I took a moment to appreciate how I looked like a humanoid sea lion.

two photos: one of a woman in tight workout clothes and a massage table with white robot arms
L: Mock turtlenecked and ready to go. R: The Aescape massage table. Images: Annie Colbert/PopSci

Now it was massage time. Aescape CEO Eric Litman helped walk me through the setup process, but the machines are designed to be self-service. Litman has spent seven years developing Aescape with $80 million in funding. He says that the idea for a fully automated, AI-driven massage table “was born out of a personal pain point” of being unable to have focused, regular treatment for a chronic pain. 

The entire massage happens while you lay on your stomach. Your face pokes through a hole that’s conveniently large enough to accommodate eye glasses. I would normally remove my glasses for a massage, but the Aescape table includes a tablet about the size of a laptop screen under the face hole that helps you control all aspects of your massage. Without my glasses, I might end up picking a weak calf massage and bad nature sounds music–nightmare scenario. I worried about my face feeling squished or ending up with the dreaded bagel-shaped indent across my forehead, cheeks, and chin but the wide space for my upper face made me forget I was even wearing my glasses. 

a woman with glasses in a hole
My face in a refreshingly comfortable hole. Image: Annie Colbert/PopSci

Before the robot hands get to work detangling my mess of muscles, I use the touchscreen to select a massage type (I go with a 30-minute “Total Back & Glutes Relief”), musical preference (a chill surf music), and pressure (as strong as humanly, errr robotly, possible). The table scans my body for 1.1 million 3D data points to map out my treatment. Aescape also says that the table learns more about your body and preferences with each massage. “We use AI to personalize your massage-going experience. Our data, trained by [massage] therapists, learns from your feedback over time, adjusting treatments to your preferences,” Litman tells PopSci

One issue I’ve encountered while trying robotic back massagers or massage chairs is a one-size-fits-all approach and ending up with rotating massage balls bruising my spine instead of providing any actual relief. By scanning each body, Aescape aims to remedy the fact that bodies come in many different shapes and sizes. The scan takes less than a minute and it’s time for the robot arms to start digging in. 

The massage started with a five-minute full body acclimation that allowed me to adjust to the feeling of warm robot nubs (yes, they’re heated) pushing on my muscles. I worried the robot “hands” would feel like a frisky WALL-E, but the shape felt more like a large, firm human palm. And again, it was warm–like the underside of an overworked laptop. The touchscreen under my face laid out exactly what to expect for the next 30 minutes and showed where I was at in the massage and what was coming next. I found this incredibly comforting as a person who spends half her massages trying to figure out the time instead of relaxing. The screen also shows a live view of exactly what muscles are being worked on, avoiding the surprise of “oh, I guess we’re doing legs now?”

two images: an image of a body and a tablet
L: Butt massage, Image: Annie Colbert/PopSci. R: The Aescape touchscreen. Image: Aescape

Throughout the 30-minute massage, I played with the pressure settings–softer on the legs, harder on the back–and found the minute-by-minute customizations helpful for getting exactly what I wanted. You also have the option to “move on” or “focus” on different body parts as the massage progresses. This is a huge win for people like me who are shy about asking a human masseuse to switch it up for fear of an awkward interaction. 

I thought the screen in my face might distract from the relaxation element of a typical massage but I found it easy to close my eyes and let the robot do its thing. 

OK, but how did it feel? Honestly, great. My expectation was that it would be pleasant, probably not tear off a limb (again, fear of robots), and feel moderately nice. But within the first pass of the robot arms on my extremely tight traps (the vaguely trapezoid-shaped muscles that sit between the shoulders and the neck), I felt pleasantly surprised. On the subway ride home, my body felt more relaxed and the next day I still felt a looseness in my back despite returning to child-lugging and computer-typing duties. 

I wouldn’t say the Aescape massage table is a one-to-one replacement for a traditional massage because it’s currently limited to a face-down position and doesn’t get all the tiny muscles, but it’s a solid supplement to regular body care. The massage tables can be booked via an app and plan to be integrated into hotels, spas, corporate offices, and fitness centers throughout 2024. The convenience and customization are major plus sides for anyone looking for quick relief. 

The Aescape massage table is launching in New York City at 10 Equinox locations this spring with 30-minute massages starting at $60.