If you’re not a gamer, you may have dismissed virtual reality (VR) as just another way to unplug and distract yourself from real life.
If that sounds like you, then you’re missing out on the next big breakthrough in health care, wellness and exercise. VR is now being used in medical training and treatment, fitness and even to help overcome phobias and anxieties. Fear of flying, anyone?
Virtual reality technology immerses you in a world of sight and sound so realistic that you can easily forget you’re experiencing something created by a computer and not real at all.
Here’s a roundup of eight ways VR is breaking new ground in health and wellness.
1. Medical Training
For centuries doctors have had to practice on cadavers or rely on books to master procedures. Using VR, the doctor may repeat a procedure many times to perfect the technique and commit the steps to memory more efficiently.
Next Galaxy Corporation has partnered with Nicklaus Children’s Hospital to develop virtual reality medical instructional software for such procedures as CPR and intubation. According to Dr. Narendra Kini, CEO of Miami Children’s Health System, a year after a VR training session a student can retain up to 80 percent of what they learn; that compares to 20 percent after a week of traditional training. Dr. Kini says people are creating memories as if they had actually done the procedure.
2. Pain Management
Children going through painful medical procedures can experience less pain and anxiety if they play VR games during their treatments, according to Jeffrey Gold, Ph.D., the director of the Pediatric Pain Management Clinic at the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. The children who played games felt as if they were not even present in the room while they were being treated.
Pain is an ongoing issue for burn victims as well. Distraction therapy via virtual reality is being used extensively in helping improve quality of life through pain management.
For example, a VR video game from the University of Washington called Snow World has patients throw virtual snowballs at penguins while listening to music. They found this alleviated pain during painful tasks like wound care or physical therapy by overwhelming the senses and pain pathways in the brain. A 2011 study showed that soldiers with burn injuries from IED blasts had better results with Snow World than with morphine.
VR has been used in PTSD treatment as far back as 1997. These days, veterans who are continually reliving the trauma they experienced during warfare become acclimated to it through exposure to virtual reality simulations of warfare in a safe and controlled environment.
Treating patients with phobias like fear of flying or fear of close spaces using VR lets them face their fears and practice coping strategies. “With VR, you can be transported into another environment that at first feels like a video game or movie, but within minutes you feel like you’re in it,” Dr. Gold says.
To help combat fear of flying, for example, you’re not just wearing a headset. You are situated on a “rumble pad” to simulate the movement and hear the sounds of the plane through headphones. “The more engaged you are in the experience, the more likely you are to believe it is real," Dr. Gold adds. "Within five minutes, you really feel you are in that scenario.”
5. Stress Management
When it became clear that VR could actually alter people’s moods, Dr. Walter Greenleaf, an early pioneer in the VR world, got to work to help alleviate anxiety and stress in patients and their families. He’s working with a group at Stanford University to study neural circuits and explore how VR can evoke certain moods. “We can actually see what lights up in the brain with an MRI or other imaging machine and figure out how VR can generate a different mood.”
The practical applications are truly exciting. From alleviating anticipatory anxiety (worrying about a future event) to managing everyday stress, being immersed in a simulated world can have startling results.
“We worked with children scheduled for surgery at children’s hospital in Stanford who were nervous about their procedures,” Dr. Greenleaf explains. “We took a 360-degree video of the whole experience, beginning with arriving at the hospital, and stitched it together for the children and families to watch at home.” Experiencing the process through VR made the process feel familiar and went a long way in reducing anxiety and aiding in recovery.
If VR can help patients in such intense situations, we can begin to see the possibilities for everyday use for relaxation training, mindfulness and stress reduction. A new app for Oculus Rift called DEEP encourages users to take deep, meditative breaths to control anxiety. In a VR environment of an underwater world, users take deep breaths (instead of using a joystick or controller) to navigmewate the world.
One of the more stunning results of virtual reality training is the work being done with paralysis. Through VR, patients who see themselves from a third-person perspective using their affected limb can actually regain movement and improve mobility.
Dr. Gold explains how it works: He says that if someone with paralysis sees themselves moving in a mirror, the brain responds by building the neurocircuitry that would help make the movement happen. Otherwise known as "neural grooving" — it's how you learn to play piano or ride a bike. "If the brain can witness the body doing something, it believes [the body is actually] doing it!,” says Dr. Gold.
7. Social Psychology
Enhancing human interaction through virtual reality sounds like a paradox. How can you improve communication by secluding yourself in an alternate reality? Practice makes perfect. For example, children on the autism spectrum, who often have difficulty in social situations, can use avatars and virtual reality to work on social cues and express socially acceptable behavior.
VR even makes it possible to virtually walk a mile in someone else’s shoes by manipulating gender, race, physical handicap, age or other variables. By putting your brain into an environment, you believe you’re actually there. Perhaps one day virtual reality can help people get along better and teach people how their actions affect others.
Active gaming through VR could be the next frontier in generally accepted gaming by focusing on health benefits. “With active virtual reality, we are trying to change the traditional way of looking at gaming,” says Coleman Fung, CEO of Goji Play, who was also one of the creators of Guitar Hero. “People sit in a very unhealthy way to play games.”
Goji Play combines exercise on a cardio machine with its handheld controls, its exclusive games and a VR device like the Oculus or HTC to get the entire body — not just the hands — into the gaming experience. “I’m hoping to get people who have underutilized cardio equipment. If we can get them to resurrect their cardio equipment, that would be great!” says Fung.
VRZoom is another virtual reality exercise product. For $399 you can buy a dedicated stationary bike with sensors and games that you hook up to your existing Oculus Rift, HTC Vibe or Sony Playstation VR for Playstation 4. While the price tag may seem high, if you already have a VR headset, the bike and games cost less than a stationary bike and in most cases even a gym membership.
The team aims to use VR to motivate instead of distract you while you exercise to deepen the experience. “When you are on the bike, all of your motion is captured and translated into VR,” explains Spencer Honeyman of VRZoom. “You can look in 360 degrees. You’re not a bike, you’re a Pegasus, a racecar. When you take off to fly, you get the sensation in your stomach that you’re taking off.”
The Future Is Almost Upon Us
While medical applications and VR gaming are a hot topic, we’re still not quite ready for full acceptance of the technology. “Right now, nobody on an airplane is wearing head-mounted displays,” Dr. Gold says, pointing out that today people feel silly wearing headsets and goggles in public. “But a year from now, people are going to be doing mindfulness and meditation, watching movies and playing games just about anywhere, and we won’t even think twice.”
What Do YOU Think?
Have you every tried VR? Do you think it lives up to the hype? Are the other ways that it can be useful? Let us know what you think in the comments section!