When people think of Virtual Reality technology, there is a big chance that they’ll think of it within the context of gaming. This is understandable, as VR tech is well-suited to bringing fantasy worlds to life and giving gamers a chance to simulate environments and actions that would otherwise be unfeasible or dangerous.
However, while gaming is a viable use (and frankly a great driving force for technological progress) for Virtual Reality, there is another field where the technology is well-suited to and capable of providing a lot of benefits: medical research.
There are a number of cases that have already proven to be ideal uses of VR technology in medical research, namely:
PTSD Treatment This year is a particularly historic year for Virtual Reality (VR) technology. While the technology itself first became a reality in 1968 via Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull’s Augmented Reality Head Mounted Display (ARHMD) system, the implementations where either both too crude and too expensive to really take off. It is only in 2014 when big brands such as Facebook, Valve Corporation, and Sony started throwing their resources at VR that the technology showed signs of maturity.
Fast forward a couple of years, and VR is finally here. Like any new innovative technology, it is currently priced at a premium. But it is by no means out of the average consumer’s reach. VR has become mainstream consumer technology.
As expected of a technology being developed by gaming and social networking, the current implementation of VR tech is geared towards entertainment, such as watching movies and playing video games. But several startups have already shown that it can easily be adapted for other uses, such as training and education. The most significant of these is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which has already embraced VR tech even before the current crop of mainstream implementations.
Virtual Reality and Astronaut Training
The ability to simulate different environments and experiences have been used to give consumers to live out fantasies or stories that are not feasible nor safe. But in NASA’s case, they have always used simulation for training astronauts for the experience. This is particularly useful because no amount of reading, watching, or instructions will prepare a person for the experience of functioning while floating hundreds of miles above the Earth, which is arguably one of the most hostile working environments known to man.
The vacuum of space is easy for NASA to recreate on Earth. They have what’s called “Chamber A” inside building 32 of their Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where all the air is pumped out of the chamber and heated or cooled depending on the situation they want to simulate, but while this chamber does allow astronauts to experience being weightless in space, it is sorely lacking because it cannot fully simulate the actual activities that an astronaut will do while out on a mission. This is where VR tech comes in.
In the same space center as Chamber A is NASA’s Virtual Reality Lab, which is considered as the most advanced and extensive training facility that the Astronauts will encounter while on Earth. The Lab houses DOUG, which is an acronym for Dynamic Onboard Ubiquitous Graphics Program.
The DOUG uses one of the most powerful VR techs in the world to simulate anything and everything that an astronaut may have to see or encounter in space, from the vastness of space itself right down to the decals and electrical lines found on the space station.
The goal, according to NASA VR Lab manager, is to make sure that astronauts will have a semblance of familiarity with the missions they will undertake. By the time they actually get to the space station, they will feel like they’ve already been there after experiencing everything in Virtual Reality.
NASA Brings Space Exploration to the Mainstream via VR
Doug is an expensive setup that is of course out of reach of the average consumer, even those with budget to spare. However, that does not mean that space exploration through VR is out of reach of the average person. In fact, NASA itself teamed up with MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory and FUSION Media in order to design a VR-based simulation of a journey to the planet of Mars.
Dubbed as the Mars 2030 Experience, the program has been released for free on all the major mainstream VR platforms, such as the Oculus Rift, the Google Cardboard, and Valve/HTC’s Vive. The experience will also be broadcast on Twitch.
Space exploration simulators are admittedly feasible now and many developers can produce their own, especially since many VR companies encourage indie companies to jump in and publish their own software on their marketplaces, but the Mars 2030 Experience is unparalleled due to the fact that it leverages NASA’s resources to produce the most extensive and accurate Virtual Reality space exploration experience.
What Can We Expect in the Future
Once VR hardware becomes cheaper, we can expect even better space exploration simulators from other companies, even indie devs. This will allow the average person to reach the stars without resorting to inaccurate fantasy-based simulators or going the long way around and forging a career path as an astronaut. With mainstream VR tech finally ready for the mainstream, accurate space simulation is no longer exclusive to government agencies and extremely wealthy individuals.
Virtual Reality is a valuable tool for helping soldiers that suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. In fact, the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies has been using VR for this purpose as far back as 1997, with Georgia Tech’s “Virtual Vietnam VR.”
By simulating the traumatic events that veterans are constantly reliving, clinics and hospitals are able to help them deal and cope with potential triggers in a safe, controlled environment.
While VR in PTSD treatment helps by simulating a painful memory, pain management research goes the other way and simulates things that will help individuals forget pain. An example of this is the videogame from the University of Washington, dubbed SnowWorld, which has users pelting virtual snowballs at penguins while listening to Paul Simon. The video is designed to alleviate pain by “distracting” the senses and pain pathways in the brain. Studies involving soldiers with burn injuries show that SnowWorld is more effective at treating pain than morphine.
Surgeons are trained through the use of cadavers and by assisting more experienced doctors first before they are allowed to handle actual surgery on their own. This is to ensure that inexperience would not lead to problems on an actual live patient. Virtual Reality could help add another means of practice for trainee surgeons, one that does not pose any real risk to patients and is a lot more accessible and cheaper than cadaver training.
General anxiety is studied and treated through meditation, but Virtual Reality has added yet another tool that will address this field: DEEP. Developed for the Oculus Rift VR headset, this app uses VR to train and help users how to take deep, meditative breaths by designing a game around it. The game uses a band worn around the chest that helps measure and detect breathing while the VR headset provides a relevant virtual environment, such as being underwater.
Assessing Brain Damage
VR these days is also being used in the analysis of brain damage, which go towards helping address impairments. A great example of this research was discussed by the organization CyberPsychology & Bad Behavior, where scientists created a Virtual reality experience that tasked users with exiting a building using doors of different colors. This task measures cognitive functions among individual users. This VR app works similarly to the Wisconsin Card Sorting Task, which works by letting participants match cards. The difference is that VR is more immersive (and thus may provide deeper results as subjects are more engaged) and can be modified better for different situations.
Expect More Applications in the Future
Virtual Reality in medical research is already far along and there are more uses cases other than what we have outlined above, but we can still expect more breakthroughs as the industry starts to innovate more and explore the technology, and as the mainstream trajectory of the technology makes VR even more affordable and accessible for both research institutes and average consumers.