When people were first introduced to virtual reality, a common reaction was to fantasize about all the different applications the technology could have. But surprisingly, even within one industry, healthcare, the possibilities are limitless. The good news is that scientists and medical professionals have been working on developing and implementing virtual reality in ways that can help them train, diagnose, and treat varieties of health problems in the coming years. Here are ten of the use cases currently in practice and are constantly evolving as the technology itself advances.
1. Exposition therapy
Exposure therapy is one treatment option for patients suffering from phobias. In one case, psychiatrists at the University of Louisville use virtual reality to help patients overcome fears such as flying and Claustrophobia.
The virtual reality experiences provide a controlled environment in which patients can confront their fears and even practise coping strategies and break patterns of avoidance — all while remaining private, safe, and quickly stopped or repeated, depending on the circumstances.
2. PTSD Remediation
Virtual reality, similar to exposure therapy for phobias and anxieties, is being used to assist soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Virtual reality’s use in PTSD treatment was mentioned in a paper from the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies as far back as 1997 when Georgia Tech released something called Virtual Vietnam VR.
Recently, clinics and hospitals have begun to use virtual reality simulations of warfare resembling that of Iraq and Afghanistan to assist veterans who, in many ways, are constantly reliving the traumatic events they experienced. As a result, they can learn how to deal with situations that would otherwise be triggers for destructive behaviour to themselves and others in a safe and controlled environment.
3. Management of Pain
Pain is a constant issue for burn victims. Doctors are hoping that virtual reality distraction therapy will help them get a handle on the pain. SnowWorld, a virtual reality video game developed by the University of Washington that involves throwing snowballs at penguins while listening to Paul Simon, has the potential to alleviate pain during excruciating tasks such as wound care or physical therapy by overwhelming the senses and pain pathways in the brain. According to a military study, SnowWorld worked better than morphine for soldiers with burn injuries from IED blasts.
4. Surgical education
Cadavers are typically used in surgical training, as is a gradual process of assisting more experienced doctors before taking over tasks and more significant portions of the surgery. Virtual reality could provide an additional practice method while posing no risk to real patients.
Stanford University, for example, has a surgery simulator with haptic feedback for those practising. In addition, Stanford’s endoscopic sinus surgery simulation, which has been in use since 2002, uses CT scans from patients to create 3D models for practice. While this technology does not employ a head-mounted display, the groundwork laid may improve the effectiveness of future virtual simulations.
5. Phantom limb discomfort
Phantom limb pain is a common medical issue for people who have lost a limb. Someone without an arm, for example, may feel as if he is clenching his fist very tightly, unable to relax. Frequently, the pain is more intense, even excruciating. Mirror therapy, in which the patient looks at a mirror image of the limb they still have, and finds relief as the brain syncs with the movements of the real and phantom limbs, has been used in the past.
In a similar vein, the medical journal Frontiers in Neuroscience published a study last year on the role virtual reality games may play in assisting with phantom limb pain relief. It works as follows: sensors detect nerve inputs from the brain. Patients must complete tasks while using a virtual limb in the game. It teaches them how to gain control and, for example, how to relax that painfully clenched fist.
6. Evaluation and rehabilitation of brain damage
CyberPsychology and Behavior published a roundup of virtual reality experiences used for assessing and retreating impairments. According to the paper, one example is executive function, which is defined as “impairments in the sequencing and organization of behaviour, including problems with planning,” according to the paper. Scientists created a virtual reality experience where users had to find their way out of a building by using different coloured doors. The Wisconsin Card Sorting Task, a neuropsychological test in which participants match cards, was supposed to be similar.
7. Training in social cognition for autistic young adults
Professors at the University of Texas at Dallas developed a training programme to assist children with autism in developing social skills. It employs brain imaging and brain wave monitoring to place children in situations such as job interviews or blind dates using avatars. They practise reading social cues and expressing acceptable social behaviour. According to the study, after completing the programme, participants’ brain scans revealed increased activity in areas of the brain associated with social understanding.
Meditation can be used to treat general anxiety. DEEP, a new Oculus Rift app, aims to teach users how to take deep, meditative breaths by making breathing the only control for the game. The app works in conjunction with a breathing-measurement band worn around the chest. As a result, the VR experience is similar to being submerged in water. Breathing is what transports a user from one location to another. Another advantage of the game is that using breathing as a controller allows those who would otherwise be unable to use a joystick or controller to participate.
9. Disabled People’s Opportunities
It’s not a new idea — the New York Times published a story in 1994 describing various applications, such as a VR experience that allowed a 5-year-old boy with cerebral palsy to take his wheelchair through a grassy field, or another that allowed 50 children with cancer to spend some time “swimming” around an animated fish tank.
In a more recent example, Fove, the maker of headsets, launched a crowdfunding campaign to develop an app called Eye Play the Piano, which would allow children with physical disabilities to play the piano using the headset’s eye-tracking technology.
10. Possibilities for the Homebound
There is some concern about virtual reality, precisely what will happen when people can go anywhere and do anything using a VR headset — perhaps they will avoid going anywhere in real life to retreat into an ideal virtual world. For those who are unable to leave their homes, whether they are disabled or elderly, virtual reality has the potential to improve their quality of life when they would otherwise be confined to a single residence, room, or even a bed.
Stanford University engineering students created an immersive virtual reality experience for seniors last year that allowed them to experience the outdoors — such as a bike ride or a walk on the beach. SUSIE, or Senior-User Soothing Immersive Experience, uses a large wall-mounted display to fill the standard field of vision and incorporates sound, light, wind, and even temperature changes.