Being There, or Somewhere Else: The Power of VR to Improve Therapy and Healthcare

Photo by the Salford Institute for Dementia (Copied from Flick)
Photo by the Salford Institute for Dementia (Copied from Flick)

For the past twenty years there has been much hype about virtual reality technology but it has never quite taken the world by storm. With heavy and unwieldy headsets, poor graphics, and prohibitively expensive price tags it is no wonder that it has never caught on. You were more likely to find it in the basement of a University, the dusty corner of an arcade, or hidden away at NASA than in the average home. However, in the past two years everything has changed.

The world of gaming and entertainment has led the charge with a lightweight and affordable headset complemented by improved technical specifications. So great has the impact been of this (almost) consumer-ready VR that earlier this year Facebook bought up the parent company, Oculus, for two billion dollars. Other large companies have also declared themselves as entrants in the latest VR race, with Sony the most prominent amongst them.

Yet scratch underneath the surface of this brave new world and this is more than a revolution in entertainment. Within universities and medical schools across the world researchers continue to make great strides in realising the potential of VR for a range of applications, including therapy and healthcare.  Collectively they embrace a key property of the VR experience the psychological illusion of ‘being there’ when you have physically gone nowhere.

The treatment of fears and phobias is one form of therapy that has taken on board the potential of VR more than most. Different therapeutic approaches expose patients to whatever causes their fear as part of their treatment. In the physical world this process can often be very expensive and very time consuming. Treating a fear of heights, or fear of flying, may involve regular trips away from the therapist’s office to high places, airports, or even on flights. In each case it can also pose a challenge for the therapist to tailor and guide the experience in such unpredictable circumstances. Using VR to expose patients to their fears would offer the therapist greater freedom, flexibility and control. But would it work?

In the mid-nineties, a group of researchers formed across Emory University, Georgia Tech, Georgia University and Clark Atlanta to set about answering this question. In various ways they began to explore the possibilities of using VR within therapy. Over the course of the next 15 years these researchers published the results of multiple studies consistently demonstrating the effectiveness of VR therapy. Not only was it effective it was effective for a wide range of phobias including the fear of flying, fear of heights, and fear of public speaking. Significantly, exposing patients to their fears and phobias through VR was just as effective as other more expensive methods.

The healthcare benefits of VR have not just been limited to fear and phobia treatments. Work undertaken with returning American and Canadian soldiers is chief amongst alternative applications. As more soldiers return from service in Iraq and Afghanistan diagnoses of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have also steadily increased. Thankfully, evidence is rapidly accumulating to show that VR can be an effective weapon in combatting PTSD in returning troops. First explored with Vietnam veterans at the end of the 90s, the VR allows the patients to repeatedly relive aspects of the traumatic experience in a controlled environment. The therapist then works with the veteran to understand and think about the events in different ways to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD.

The treatment of chronic pain has also received attention in some quarters. Researchers at Stanford University have been using VR to aid children with chronic regional pain syndrome (CRPS). Given the nature of the condition the treatment of CRPS can often be painful. VR has therefore been used to provide a pain reducing distraction in conjunction with their physical treatments. It appears that engaging in a virtual ‘somewhere else’ can provide the brain with sufficient distraction to moderate the painful experiences these children go through. These researchers are not unique in utilising virtual reality to treat chronic pain. Back in 2000, a group of researchers from Washington published perhaps the first account of using VR to reduce pain in burn victims.

In learning about these developments it may be tempting to conclude that VR research was a North American pursuit. Whilst tempting this would be misleading as the efforts are truly international. We only need to look as far as Bournemouth to find researchers using VR to distract patients during dental surgery. Developers in Switzerland are using VR to bring mobility back to paralysed limbs, whilst a brief look at Sweden reveals that virtual limbs can alleviate some of the phantom pain that can occur when you actually lose an arm or leg.

If there is one thing that ties all of these developments together it is providing the user with an experience of ‘being there’ whether it be a situation that scares them, re-living a combat zone experience, or providing an immersive distraction from pain. That sense of ‘being there’ is a psychological phenomenon referred to as ‘presence’. Indeed, for many people presence is key to understanding the power of virtual reality across different sectors. Whilst researchers and academics may disagree about the exact definition of presence, or how many types of presence there are, there is common agreement that using VR can produce a genuine feeling of ‘being there’ (or somewhere else) even in the knowledge that a computer is running the show. This is a phenomenon that can be, and is being, exploited for many different purposes. With this property the technology provides multiple opportunities not tied to a particular issue, treatment or phenomenon.

Beneath the surface you will find a world of possibilities that VR has opened up. In healthcare and therapy we have only begun to exploit the possibilities that VR affords. As VR technology becomes affordable and easy to use, as it receives larger financial investment, and as technological components become even smaller, cheaper and faster, the next decade will see the potential of VR embraced like it never has been before. At the end of the last century VR never did change the world. At the start of this century, it may just change everything.

Matthew Coxon

About Matthew Coxon

Matthew is a senior lecturer in Cognitive Psychology at York St John University. His research is currently concerned with the cognitive basis of 'presence' in virtual reality (the feeling of 'being there').

Matthew is a senior lecturer in Cognitive Psychology at York St John University. His research is currently concerned with the cognitive basis of 'presence' in virtual reality (the feeling of 'being there').

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