Virtual Reality in Regards to Health and how it Can be Life-Changing
Exploring Virtual Reality in Health Diego Leon Professor Ron Frazier October 29, 2018, Introduction When most individuals think of technology involving computers, they think it can solely involve two of the five senses we humans have – vision (sight) and hearing (audition). But what if we could interact with more than two sensorial channels? Virtual reality deals with just that. Virtual reality is defined as a “high-end user interface that involves real-time simulation and interaction through multiple sensorial channels.” It has also been defined as a “computer-generated, immersive, multi-sensory information program which tracks a user in real-time.” These various sensorial channels this could entail are vision, sound, touch, smell, taste. As Douglas Adams clearly states in his book Mostly Harmless, “A computer terminal is not some clunky old television with a typewriter in front of it. It is an interface where the mind and body can connect with the universe and move bits of it about” (Burdea Grigore & Coiffet, 1994). The point Douglas was trying to get across is that a computer should not solely be constrained to the conventional senses, like hearing and seeing. To create an immersive experience for the user, we should implement as many sensorial channels as possible. This will cause the user to become stimulated, widen his or her imagination, and increase interaction in various ways respective to the specific virtual reality experience the user is encountered with. Although the conventional usage of virtual reality can be for entertainment purposes and immersing a user into a game or environment for an aspect of enjoyment or pleasure, it is clear that virtual reality can be used to cure some health conditions and help certain patients suffering from mental illnesses.
In this paper, we will delve further into the different uses of virtual reality in regards to health and how it can be life-changing for some individuals who suffer from various conditions ranging from autism all the way to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We will go over the market the gradual increase of virtual reality market size and how much of it pertains to health purposes compared to entertainment. History Some may think virtual reality has only been around for the past decade or so, but in reality, it has been an emerging technology since the mid-1960s. It all started when Ivan Sutherland, deemed as a pioneer of comp wrote his doctoral theses which entailed Sketchpad. He later won the Turing Award in 1988 for it is the first program to have a graphic user interface. The Sketchpad, stereo HMD, position tracking, and graphics engine were all revolutionary developments that came from Sutherland. The HMD was considered to be the first virtual reality head-mounted display (HMD). At the time it was a first of its kind and has minimal features in regards to user interface and realism. The system output was displayed from a computer program using a stereoscopic display. Position tracking was a necessity because the perspective that the software displayed to the user would vary heavily on where the user was looking. Although Sutherland created the first prototype of a virtual reality system, the term Virtual Reality wasn’t coined until 1989. In an interview with Jaron Lanier, he describes virtual reality by saying, “We are speaking about a technology that uses computerized clothing to synthesize shared reality. It recreates our relationship with the physical world in a new plane, no more, no less. It doesn’t affect the subjective world; it doesn’t have anything to do directly with what’s going on inside your brain. It only has to do with what your sense organs perceive.
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The physical world, the thing on the other side of your sense organs, is received through these five holes, the eyes, and the ears, and the nose, and the mouth, and the skin. They’re not holes, actually, and there are many more senses than five but that’s the old model, so we’ll just stick with it for now.” The timeline of developments within virtual reality can be shown below. All of these individuals made a massive contribution to make VR what it is this present day. Although NASA’s developments were not included in this timeline, it is clear that it developed the first complete VR system in the early 1980s. This system was called the Virtual Visual Environmental Display (VIVED) and implemented an LCD HMD (head-mounted display) rather than Sutherland’s stereo HMD back in 1965. This system later became called the Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW) in 1989 and was used for training needs involving large simulations and a relatively small budget.
Now that the virtual reality tools have been redefined and are in process of being fully developed, companies are putting an emphasis on various types of software for VR. The software will vary upon the company, their intentions, and most importantly their target market. The graph on the right displays the global virtual reality software market size projected from 2017 through 2023 (‘Virtual Reality Software Market’, 2018). As the graph depicts, it is evident the demand for VR software has only increased and will only increase throughout the upcoming years. Some of the largest contributors to this graph are Sony, followed by Microsoft, Facebook, HTC, Samsung, and even GoPro. Although the demand for VR software is growing exponentially, most of the big companies know the demand for VR is primarily in video games and entertainment. Since that is their prime focus, that leaves smaller startups to focus on how virtual reality can make an impact within the healthcare industry. There are numerous ways how these VR startups can improve the lives of people; some include people with autism, lazy eye, chronic pain, and other mental health conditions. With 2.5 million Americans diagnosed with either autism or Asperger syndrome, using VR for therapy could be life-changing for these individuals. Not only could it improve their quality of life, but it could help them become high-functioning so they could be a part of the society and eventually attend university, get a regular job, improve social interactions, communications abilities, and even fewer trips to the doctor’s office. Healthcare in Virtual Reality Although the larger companies are mainly focusing on the entertainment video games industry within VR, there are startups out there like Floreo who are known for use of virtual reality to help make the delivery of therapy simplified. The simplification entails parents being able to support their son or daughter diagnosed with autism from home. Floreo’s product uses mobile virtual reality to instigate and stimulate social interactions with autistic kids by generating random, friendly virtual characters into the scene. The scene displayed to the autistic individuals can be modified and tailored to the specifications of the parent or doctor. The virtual environments and sensory complexity of it can all be modified and vary from patient to patient (Usman, ‘7 Ways Virtual Reality is Improving Healthcare’, 2018). Studies and research as of now have shown to have a calming effect with children on the autism spectrum, but the ultimate goal would be to increase their social skills and improve communication. Additionally, other virtual reality methods used to increase social skills are special virtual environments that simulate a real-world interaction. This could be beneficial for those who have had trouble in the past in regards to how to act and interact in a public environment. Some of these virtual environments are analyzing an autistic individual’s adherence to social conventions.
The social conventions entailed avoiding walking across a neighbor’s garden and respecting an individual’s personal space while engaged in a conversation. The virtual environment I found most interesting and beneficial involved the autistic individuals walking around a coffee shop. Researchers would analyze their behavior to see how these individuals would act at a real coffee shop. This research varied upon where on the spectrum they were on; some individuals would go behind the counter at the virtual environment simulation of a coffee shop while others knew that was not appropriate behavior. The ‘off-task behavior of some of these individuals was linked to low verbal IQ and weak executive abilities. The conclusion was that some individuals may need more support to finish the tasks successfully in the virtual environments compared to others. This is simply due to the different disorders within the autism spectrum and how much it can vary (Parsons & Cobb, 2011). Aside from helping those in the autism spectrum, VR can also be beneficial to those with chronic pain. Around 11 percent of Americans have chronic pain issues and the demand for painkillers is only increasing. Reducing the demand of painkillers can contribute in ending the opioid epidemic, which cause almost 100 people to die every day. A substitute for painkillers is VR, which can help reduce the pain by 25 percent. This type of medical VR has been researched to see how it stops the brain from processing pain and reducing pain for patients dealing with chronic pain. Certain VR environments can be so distracting for some patients that they forget they are in chronic pain and end up releasing stress. A popular virtual environment that deals with this specifically is Farmoo. Karuna Labs is another startup that develops these types of immersive virtual reality environments. It all has to do with changing the way an individual’s brain processes pain and manipulating these threat responses. Once these brain signals are rewired and the patient learns how to deal with the suffering pain, they are eventually able to live a life with less pain.
Moreover, virtual reality can also be used for simple uses like helping patients who are children become more relaxed while waiting to be released from a hospital. Some of these patients end up missing their family and are concerned about their condition since it could be unclear what they have sometimes. A company trying to take on this problem is VisitU, which provides patients with an app and virtual glasses. The virtual environment they are provided with is personalized so they could get in touch with their family and home at any time of the day. Instead of doing a video chat via Skype, patients could use the virtual reality environment so they are fully immersed and feel like they truly are with their loved ones. This could even reduce the need for hospital visits from the patients’ family. Another health improvement coming out of VR is restoring low vision. Vision impairment Is known to affect over 135 million individuals all over the world. Unlike other eye issues, low vision cannot be fixed through an intricate surgical procedure. Not even medicine or a special pair of glasses can help patients with low vision. But now a product called IrisVision helps the patient regain their sight. Using IrisVision’s virtual reality environment, patients regain their sight by having a way they could magnify certain objects in a visual scene without interfering with the entire environment as a whole. Patients are able to change the magnification, contrast, ambient level, text options, and can even practice by performing eye-hand coordinated activities. Virtual reality has also been known to assist survivors of traumatic brain injuries by giving them the ability to regain their functions again. The VR app called Mindmaze allows patients to practice moving their fingers and arms using the help of VR. Although the action is all within the VR environment and not in real life, it stimulates recovery and gives the patients motivation. Both of these have been proven to speed up the recovery of one’s lost functions after a trauma. Virtual reality has also been beneficial to those trying to get into the medical profession. Now with the advancements in VR, medical students can watch an operation via virtual reality, which can increase the learning/teaching experience. Currently, only a few medical students are able to attend an operation with a surgeon. With this new technology, a limitless number of medical students can watch the operation within the VR environment. This way, every student will get to watch the operation performed down to the last detail. Although this way of viewing the procedure has only been introduced in 2016, it has been growing and many hospitals are starting to implement this method. Conclusion All in all, whether virtual reality is used to help those with autism or chronic pain it is still better than the conventional methods currently being used. The immerse technology is helping lower the demand for those with chronic pain to purchase pills to help them get rid of the pain. Even if the VR doesn’t fully take the pain away, if it can at least make it bearable or teach patients to learn how to deal with it, that is good enough to get rid of the painkillers overall.
In regards to autism, there are already studies proving that those practicing social skills within the virtual reality environments will be able to contribute and be a part of society at some point. Virtual reality in healthcare should be a larger focus and be a point of interest for large software developing companies, rather than solely making games for entertainment purposes. Once these companies see the larger picture, they will realize how much they could help the world and the patients suffering from incurable diseases and disorders. In my final analysis, the increase of use in specific VR environments, with consistency, will eventually assist patients in living a normal life. Whether these individuals were born with an illness like autism or suffered a life-threatening injury, everyone deserves to leave a normal, peaceful life. Virtual reality can make that happen in precise ways when using researched virtual environments.