Virtual Reality Helps to Make Reality Better

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Virtual reality, technology that gives users the feeling they are somewhere else, can be of great value in treating people suffering from a variety of physical or psychological conditions.

Therapy based on the technology is being used in a small number of U.S. clinics to treat burn victims and people with phobias such as the fear of flying, spiders, and heights. Researchers say the technology holds enormous promise for treating post-traumatic stress disorder and addictions and for use as a distraction technique in painful dental and medical procedures, including chemotherapy and physical therapy.

Advances in the technology, such as higher-resolution head-mounted displays, will most likely help virtual reality take its place among more mainstream treatments, say researchers.

Computer-Generated Experience

Virtual reality generally involves a computer-generated, multidimensional sensory environment that users experience via interface tools that enable them to immerse themselves in the environment, navigate within it, and interact with objects and characters inhabiting the environment.

Virtually Better, a company co-founded by Barbara Rothbaum, director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, creates virtual reality environments for use in the treatment of anxiety disorders.

"For most of our applications, we use a head-mounted display that's kind of like a helmet with a television screen in front of each eye and has position trackers and sensors," says Rothbaum. "And for most environments, we have earphones as well. And (some) people hold a handheld device and can manipulate their environment."

In SnowWorld, the first virtual environment designed specifically for treating burn victims, patients undergoing painful treatments can fly through an icy canyon with a frigid river and waterfall and shoot snowballs at snowmen, igloos, robots and penguins standing on narrow ice shelves or floating in a river.

The virtual reality treatment is successful because the patient's attention is no longer focused on the wound or the pain, but rather on the virtual world, says SnowWorld's developer, Hunter Hoffman, director of the Virtual Reality Analgesia Research Center at the University of Washington Human Interface Technology Laboratory in Seattle.

Austin Mackay sings the praises of the technology. Mackay, 25, is a patient of David Patterson, a clinical psychologist who treats burn patients at the Harborview Burn Center in Seattle.

Mackay's right arm, right flank and rib cage sustained third-degree burns in a fire last September. He initially participated in a regular physical therapy regimen.

"With the physical therapist, it was pretty painful but not intolerable," he said. "I volunteered to do the VR for one day for the research. It was a lot more fun than regular physical therapy because it took my mind off what I was doing. It pretty much blocked out the pain of my movement during my rehabilitation.

"I didn't even really conceive that they were doing my physical therapy. I was just really involved in the game," Mackay says.

Gaming Industry Helping

Although the medical applications of virtual reality are promising, experts say that more needs to be done before it will become a widely accepted and practiced clinical treatment.

"The innovators in medical VR will be called upon to refine technical efficiency and increase physical and psychological comfort and capability while keeping an eye to reducing costs for health care," says research scientist Walter Greenleaf, president of Greenleaf Medical Group.

Greenleaf Medical is a Palo Alto, Calif.-based consortium of companies working to advance the development of new technologies in medicine.

Virtually Better President and CEO Ken Graap says he thinks that within the next five years companies will make such improvements as wireless trackers--devices that measure movement and translate it into computer commands--and better-resolution head-mounted displays with wider fields of view.

"Now we're dealing with head-mounted displays with fields of view that are about 28 degrees, and that's a pretty narrow field of view. In addition, the prices will decline," Graap says. "There are commercial ones that are available now that have 60-degree and 140-degree fields of view, but they're $20,000 to $140,000."

"Most of this technology is driven by the game industry," Rothbaum says. "Currently, there's not a huge demand for (head-mounted displays), so I'm hoping those get better, lighter, have better resolution and are cheaper."

Graap says that within the next five years, virtual reality technology will become wireless and patients won't have to be tethered to a computer--allowing them to be treated at home.

"(I) can envision people having a station at home and being connected through a telepresence to a therapist," he says. "So in one window, there's a therapist who's encouraging the patient or helping control the desktop, and in the other window, there's the person who's receiving help."

Research scientist Skip Rizzo says that avatars--humanoid figures in a virtual or computer space--will take on more and more humanlike qualities.

"As they evolve, they will move less like robots and more like people," says Rizzo, a research assistant professor at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies and School of Gerontology in Marina del Rey.

"I think within the next five years, there will be an integration of speech programs so the avatar will understand what a person says and process it," says Rizzo. "The avatar will interact at a very high level with people."

This story, "Virtual Reality Helps to Make Reality Better" was originally published by Computerworld.

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