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February 14, 2017


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It should be obvious that VR technology has officially take off in the past few years. There are countless VR headsets available, ranging in price from $15 (see Google Cardboard) to $800 (HTC Vive). One thing you’ll notice about most of these sets is that they’re marketed as toys; a way to play games or enjoy a walk on a sandy beach during a sunset.

And this makes sense, because ever since the concept of VR has existed, we’ve connected it with entertainment. In fact, the concept itself didn’t come from an engineer or inventors drawing board. Probably the first example of VR that we can find comes from a 1935 Science Fiction novel called “Pygmalion’s Spectacles”, by Stanley G. Weinbaum.

In the story, the main character, Dan Burke, meets an elfin professor, Albert Ludwig, who invented a pair of goggles which enabled “a movie that gives one sight and sound […] taste, smell, and touch. […] You are in the story, you speak to the shadows (characters) and they reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it.”

One of the earliest known examples of VR technology came in the form of the “Sensorama”, which was developed by Morton Heilig in the 1950s and in 1962 he built a prototype of his vision, along with five short films for it to display. The Sensorama was a mechanical device, which still functions today.

Outside of the classic children’s toy, the Viewmaster, we had to wait several decades before we saw a real life example of the “pair of goggles” that Weinbaum described in “Pygmalion’s Spectacles” In 1991 we received those goggles in the form of the Sega VR and then in 1995 Nintendo released “Virtual Boy”. Neither devices really took off. Nevertheless, the perception of Virtual Reality as a video game delivery system has been cemented.

VR in Healthcare

But the actual uses for VR go way beyond fun and games. There are quite a few examples where this exciting technology has real life applications, particularly in the healthcare industry. The first, and perhaps most obvious aspect of healthcare that’s being changed by VR is post-op recovery. This enables patients to “relax on a beach” or “interact” with loved ones or other patients in recovery.

Medical VR goes deeper, though. The USC Institute for Creative Technologies, established in 1999, is a DoD sponsored University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) working in collaboration with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory . At the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), leaders in the artificial intelligence, graphics, virtual reality and narrative communities are working to advance immersive techniques and technologies to solve problems facing service members, students and society.

VR and Treatment of PTSD

One great example ICT’s work is a project called “Bravemind” .  Bravemind is a clinical, interactive, virtual reality based exposure therapy tool being used to assess and treat post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A major challenge of treating PTSD is having to rely on patients to be able to effectively imagine their traumatic experiences. Many are unable or understandably unwilling to do this. Bravemind was developed to address this challenge by offering a means by which to overcome the natural avoidance tendency of trauma sufferers.

VR Helps Amputees Adjust

The same institute is addressing challenges presented to amputees , their physicians, and caregivers. There are plenty of centers that provide state of the art, intensive clinic based programs but the opportunity exists to improve clinical and home based practice and supervision by developing a computer based tele-rehabilitation program that capitalizes on existing computer based 3D real-time motion tracking technology. This research builds upon a number of existing USC ICT technologies by modifying and improving a game-based tool for rehabilitation of service members with amputation and integrating ICT virtual human technologies to build a novel interaction tool to educate and reduce stigmas associated with amputation.

Medical Training Enhanced by VR

Virtual reality also has a ton of applications in the training of medical professionals. It can be used in medical schools to enable students to acquire “hands on” training within a controlled environment. This eliminates risk to patients, as well as allowing instructors to create a myriad of different scenarios for students to encounter.

Preventing Unhealthy Habits with VR

VR also has some applications in preventative medicine, as well. It can be used to educate patients about lifestyle choices such as smoking, alcohol consumption, exercise, and diets. Society continues to place an emphasis on making positive lifestyle and health changes, and VR is a great way to help people make those changes.

VR Helps Those with Autism

Leaders at the University of Texas developed a program that uses VR to help children, teens, and young adults with autism develop social skills. They place the patients in common social scenarios like blind dates or interviews, enabling them to learn how to pick up on and react to social cues appropriately. The researchers monitor brain waves during the scenarios and have noticed increased activity in areas of the brain connected to social understanding as testing progressed.

Beyond Healthcare

There are endless examples of the uses of VR outside of entertainment and healthcare. VR can be used to test car safety, help architects model designs, and even help plan your next vacation. Subscribe to our newsletter to be notified of continued coverage on the amazing uses of this exciting technology.

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