Imagine being able to put on a headset and completely immerse yourself in a game, movie, or social experience unlike any other kind. This is the promise of the recently released Oculus Rift technology that falls under the category of virtual reality. The days of watching TV or playing a videogame from feet away are coming to an end. Instead, virtual reality technology allows the user to feel as if they are directly in the environment projected to them through the headset. This technology was initially designed to create a gaming experience like no other. However, the implications virtual reality has on our lives expands far beyond leisure. Highlighted in this article will be how virtual reality can change the way we approach our health – both physical and mental.
What is Virtual Reality?
With the current hype surrounding virtual reality, it is easy to assume that this is a recent technology. Contrary to popular belief, the term “virtual reality” was coined back in 1987 by computer scientist Jaron Lanier and has been an active topic of research for 70 years (VRS, 2016). While this technology has been around for a while, it has only very recently caught the public’s attention with the unraveling of Oculus Rift and other similar devices.
The online tech magazine CNET describes virtual reality as “a computer-generated environment that lets you experience a different reality”. The associated headset fits over your eyes and projects virtual images to you through two lenses. In this way, rather than seeing your current environment you become completely immersed in the virtual one. This is contrasted against augmented reality, which overlays computer-generated enhancements onto existing reality (for example the yard lines added to televised sports events) (Lindsay, 2016).
Outside of gaming and entertainment, virtual reality is also branching into the field of health. There are several areas of surgery and mental illness where virtual reality can be beneficial.
It can be easy to see how virtual reality can benefit the gaming and entertainment industries, but its contribution to the health field is a little bit more obscured.
Imagine yourself as a young doctor. It is time to assist on your first surgery and you have studied the procedure a thousand times; you can recite it in your sleep. You have seen all the videos and studied all the diagrams. Still, upon walking into the surgery room with shaking hands, you wish you could have practiced it just once without hurting anyone. In the next several years, that will become a real possibility. The world of virtual reality allows us to create specialized programs mimicking various surgeries. Right now, the field is limited with few procedures and is used as more a supplementary learning tool as opposed to a fundamental one. Not all students even have access to the available programs. One company, Simulated Surgicals, is on the forefront of this field, offering virtual reality practice programs for surgeries requiring robotics. According to their website, they currently offer only four hands-on surgeries: lymph node dissection, hysterectomy (surgical operation to remove the uterus), prostatectomy (removal of the prostate gland), and cystectomy (removal of an abnormal cyst). Simulated Surgicals promises “being able to practice a real surgical procedure without posing any risk to a patient…”.
While virtual reality surgeries have not yet been proven to be more effective than traditional training methods (Erin, 2015), there is still a variety of benefits to this sort of training. Firstly, it may be less expensive. Cadavers and other costly training procedures, including the use of animal models, may be replaced with virtual reality training, saving training hospitals money that can be used elsewhere. More importantly, it has been shown to improve patient outcomes. A study performed by Dr. Seymour et al. randomly selected 16 surgical residents to learn to perform a gallbladder removal and then present it in front of expert professionals. The students were grouped into two conditions: half received virtual reality training for the surgery, while the other half were trained using traditional methods. When put to the test, both groups received equally successful outcomes, but the virtual reality group seemed to have an easier time getting there. It was shown that the virtual reality group performed the surgery 29% faster than their counterparts and were five times less likely to make small errors. The results speak for themselves in showing the advantage of virtual reality training.
Considering its current practicality and convenience for this purpose, we should look forward to seeing a wider range of surgeries becoming available for practice in the future. For example, developers are working on creating a virtual reality training program for operating on the liver. A report written by Marescaux et. al indicates the liver is a particularly difficult organ to operate on due to its complexity and variability between species and even individuals. Because of this, many of the current models and training procedures are inadequate when preparing students for liver surgeries. With the use of virtual reality paired with 3D modeling tools and body scans, students will be able to practice with virtual 3D models of their patient’s liver. Virtual reality has the possibility to render a generation of doctors that is more masterful and confident in their art.
Virtual reality isn’t just a tool to help heal your physical illnesses; it’s good for the mind too. Virtual reality can serve as a unique tool by tricking your mind into thinking it is in another location, while your physical being remains in one place. Feeling a little stressed? Why not take a nice, relaxing few hours at the beach to watch the waves crash. Feeling lonely? You could video-call your parents and join them at their house for dinner. Feeling a little depressed? Use virtual reality to play with some puppies. The possibilities are endless. Giving us the opportunity to truly escape, virtual reality will be an invaluable tool used to calm our nerves and improve our mental well-being.
What about some of the more detrimental mental illnesses? Virtual reality technology is already at a level that allows it to treat phobias by exposure therapy, though it is not yet a popular treatment method. Exposure therapy, according to the National Center of PTSD, is a form of therapy where the patient is repeatedly exposed to a frightening or stressful scenario. The idea is that, with prolonged exposure, the situation will become less stressful. The therapy starts off slowly, perhaps just looking at pictures of your fear, and once you are comfortable, progresses to the next level until you are ready to confront your fear head-on. Using computer-made environments, therapists can expose their patients to fearful situations without having to physically seek them out in the world. Instead, this can be done from the comfort of their office. Additionally, treatments can be highly personalized to each patient and their particular fear. This will allow treatment of phobias to progress more quickly than standard exposure therapy, which relies on fear exposure in the real world. This can be difficult to achieve if you have a fear of sharks and live in Canada. With virtual reality, the sharks can come to you.
A study conducted by Morina et al. investigated the effectiveness of virtual reality regarding the treatment of various phobias including spiders and heights. They employed virtual reality to simulate real-world situations and used exposure therapy to treat their patients. They found that their patients were doing much better after therapy, as compared to before, indicating that their phobias affected their day-to-day lives less and that they were less afraid than they had been previously. There is little research to show whether or not virtual reality is better than traditional exposure therapy, but the current results show that it is an effective treatment method.
Following that virtual reality can be used to treat various fears, Daniel and Jason Freeman wondered if it could be used on a different kind of fear: paranoia, the fear of imminent danger from various targets in your environment – markedly, people. Paranoia is often a symptom of schizophrenia and is notoriously hard to treat. According to Mayo Clinic, traditionally, schizophrenia is treated with anti-psychotics and treatment must continue throughout the individual’s lifetime. Therapy is recommended for those living with schizophrenia, and it focuses on dealing with stress and acclimating to the community. There is no specific intervention for dealing with paranoid delusions that many experience. Freeman and Freeman’s treatment followed the premise of exposure therapy – they wanted to use virtual reality to put their patients in social scenarios. The scenarios included being on a crowded train or street, and the patients were asked to stare at or talk to persons in their environment that were causing them stress. With prolonged exposure, the patients would learn that there was nothing to substantiate their paranoia and it would subside. Their study included 30 patients who were experiencing persecutory delusions even with medication. After their sessions, 11 of the 30 patients no longer had any persecutory beliefs, and all patients experienced an improvement in their symptoms. With impressive results like this, it is no question that virtual reality will be used as a technology to treat persistent mental illnesses and enhance traditional therapy in the near future.
Virtual reality is a technology that has been around for decades, but because of its disappointing quality in its early years, it has only exploded in popularity now. It is a great invention for gaming and entertainment, and allows us to be completely immersed in virtual environments. Even more impressive, it also allows us to be immersed in more useful settings, not just ones created for leisure. In the future, virtual reality could be used regularly in surgery training and the treatment of mental illnesses, making this technology good for your body and your mind.