There’s hardly any room for doubt left: it looks like VR is here to stay. And although this technology has gained popularity predominantly among gamers, several industries have already figured out a number of other beneficial uses for VR. These uses go well beyond gaming to the realms of health care, space and education, to mention only the most popular ones. Sounds interesting right? In this article, we’re going to have a closer look at how VR is shaping our reality and transforming our future, and at some of its key benefits.
First and foremost, for those who haven’t been lured into the exciting world of VR yet, VR or virtual reality technology is one that seeks to simulate a realistic three-dimensional environment which can be experienced by humans. Just to mention one example, VR technology can immerse you within a rainforest environment, and in whichever direction you move in this virtual rainforest, you’ll get to see different things and features, similar to being in a real rainforest! If it's raining, then you'll see the rain pouring in front of you, behind you, and whichever way you turn. At the moment, VR is restricted to the visual and auditory experience, although there are also projects working on incorporating other senses such as smell.
What's interesting about VR is that it has been in use for some decades, since 1968, when Philco Corporation developed a head-mounted display that could be connected to a computer. However, it's only in recent years that the technology has developed enough to be employed for various uses. Widely available head-mounted displays (HMDs) such as Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive, Microsoft HoloLens, and Google Cardboard have also made VR more affordable, and thus more popular in various fields.
All this sounds fun right? And that may have been the original idea behind the development of VR technology; to create more immersive games and revolutionize the gaming industry. In fact, VR games are now widespread; Sony has produced over 150 PlayStation VR games already, and gambling companies have taken up the idea to start developing VR games for real money. In fact, software developer NetEntertainment has taken the lead in this area, by launching the first real-money VR slot only last year in the form of a highly entertaining game called Gonzo’s Quest VR. To see how it works, watch one of us play Gonzos Quest VR here.
But can the uses of VR technology go beyond entertainment for its own sake? The answer is yes, they already have! Below, we’ll be examining some of these uses, and how VR is likely to develop in each area.
Virtual Reality technology is already being used in certain institutions to create training scenarios for medical personnel or students. Students can use their VR headsets to experience a surgical procedure from a surgeon’s point of view. Cancer surgeon Shafi Ahmed was the first person to use VR in the operating theatre in 2016, by using a VR camera at the Royal London hospital, thus enabling everyone to follow this procedure by means of two 360 degree cameras.
But Virtual Reality in health care has a use that also goes beyond education or even diagnostics. VR technology can actually help patients recover faster or experience less pain! Let’s have a look at two fascinating examples.
To understand how VR can possibly help in health care, one should first grasp the vital connection between mind and body. What we believe, perceive and think greatly affects our body’s ability to heal or the way we process and feel pain.
Let’s first take one simple (albeit extreme) scenario. Imagine you are being chased by a crocodile, and as you run away from it as fast as you can (barefoot!), you step onto a sharp pin. We bet you won’t stop to remove or examine the damage the pin has done to your foot until you’re in a safe place, and even then, your relief will be so great that the pain won’t feel like a big deal. If, on the other hand, you’re walking barefoot in your bedroom and step over a pin, the pain will feel unbearable! The reason why the same injury didn’t affect you so much in the first scenario but caused you agony in the second is that in the first case, you were terribly distracted; all you could think of was getting away from that crocodile. Your mind was not focused on the pain at all.
This is where VR games would come into play. What if patients could play a game during minor procedures, to distract them from the discomfort and the pain? This is already happening in certain hospitals, and it’s proving incredibly effective too. In cases where patients cannot take anaesthetics due to certain conditions, some surgeries are being performed while patients play a VR game to distract them!
SnowWorld is a VR game developed at the University of Washington Human Interface Technology Laboratory in collaboration with Harborview Burn Center and other burn centres, and was the first VR game designed specifically to reduce pain in burn patients. Wound care normally entails excruciating pain, but as we already explained, pain perception has a vital psychological component – you could feel less or more pain depending on what you’re thinking or doing.
SnowWorld features a snowy environment where players need to score points by hitting snowmen, penguins and flying fish with snow balls. Patients are required to point their head in the direction they would like to launch a snowball, and then press a button to throw it. Simple as it sounds, the idea behind SnowWorld was to create a snowy and icy scene to evoke the very opposite of fire, which is the concept associated with burning pain. And of course, the gaming element serves to distract patients from their pain.
Studies have shown significant differences in pain levels among patients who have been treated without VR technology and those who have been distracted with VR. But what’s more, this difference in pain levels isn’t only due to distraction. VR can actually change the way the brain processes pain; in fact brain scans have shown that patients playing a VR game have really had a reduction in pain-related activity - so there is actually a physical change brought on by playing this VR game!
The uses of VR in healthcare can go further than just serving to decrease pain through distraction. In fact, it has also been used to speed up recovery in cases of brain injury; A Swiss app called Mindmaze which uses VR technology allows patients to practice moving their limbs or fingers by prompting them to visualise these movements; although they might not even be making an actual movement, this app enhances their attention and motivation and actually helps them recover much faster! In cases were motor skills can be regained, visualization can help a great deal, and such visualisation can be effectively aided via VR technology.
One study conducted specifically on paraplegics by Duke University discovered enormous benefits that resulted from the use of VR technology. Paraplegis patients wearing an Oculus Rift were told to move through a stadium imagining they were a soccer player. An EEG cap was used to measure brainwave activity, and a vibrating tactile feedback device was used to provide patients with a very realistic experience. The result: some of them were able to regain certain brain functions that we use to move our legs! Of the eight patients in the study, all of them regained some control and four were upgraded from full paraplegics to partial paraplegics. VR technology helped them re-train their mind and actually recover some neurological functions!
All this goes to show that the potential of VR is really big in the health area, and not to be underestimated. We wouldn’t be surprised to find that VR technology will become commonplace at the dentist’s or at the physiotherapist’s in the near future, and certainly hope so; I, for one, wouldn’t mind escaping to a virtual skiing destination as the dentist works away on my teeth!
The potential of VR in the field of education is also mind-blowing. Simulations can help students go a long way, whether through virtual reality trips to destinations or scenarios they would otherwise not experience, to simulations that educate them on how they should or shouldn’t behave. To mention a few examples, Toyota has been using Oculus headsets in its TeenDrive365 campaign, in order to educate both teenagers and parents about distracted driving. VR apps have also been developed to train staff for fire emergencies, where staff will get to practise all the steps needed to evacuate a building or to put the fire out. Museums could also use VR technology to immerse visitors in a particular setting in the past, making time travel finally possible!
VR has also proven to be incredibly successful in teaching those who are afraid or uncomfortable about certain scenarios. An app called Public Speaking VR enables people to practise public speaking by immersing them in photorealistic environments that enable them to prepare for a presentation or job interview. Studies have also reported that dedicated VR apps have a positive potential for developing social cognition skills in children with autism, as VR environments can be designed to fit specific needs, enabling children to learn social interaction and nonverbal cues more effectively. Essentially, virtual reality provides a more reassuring way of practising various skills or even overcoming specific phobias, as they expose people to real-life situations but in a more controlled environment that is perceived as a safer one.
As attorney Noel Edlin, managing partner of San Francisco's Bassi, Edlin, Huie & Blum aptly puts it, Virtual Reality could be used to “transport members of a jury to a Superfund site, inside a mesothelioma patient’s lungs, to the intersection where an accident occurred, or to a grisly crime scene.” (learn more here). VR for the purpose of analyzing evidence or to recreate a crime scene can be incredibly effective in putting members of the jury and investigators 'in the picture'. The more the technology develops, the more widespread it will become for these purposes as well, so much so that in a few years, VR technology is expected to become commonplace when solving crimes.
However, there is still some controversy when it comes to using VR in this area, since the reconstructed scene will still have been created from the personal viewpoint of the VR experts, who would need to testify in court regarding the accuracy of the virtual reality model - and even if they do, it might be difficult to be totally objective in such cases!
As you can easily imagine, VR technology can be a really helpful tool for architects and designers to visualise ideal spaces, and we expect it to totally replace hand-drawn sketches in future. The simulation of a real building makes it easier for professionals to design better buildings by incorporating things like flooring and lightning in the VR setting and seeing how it will actually look. What's more, they will also be able to test their ideas before building, by determining how long someone will be able to exit a building in case of fire, for example! Clients will of course be able to imagine what their future home will look like more easily, and with proper VR technology, they will also be able to 'walk' into their future house.
The same applies in automotive manufacturing. Manufacturers, such as General Motors and Ford, are using VR technology to test design plans, safety features and tolerance in virtual environments. This helps them save costs in the long run by avoiding car recalls and other problems further down the line. What's more, from the consumer end, things are also starting to change. In some showrooms, customers can now wear a VR headset that will customise a car model or display certain features, making it look exactly like the car they're about to order. They can even sit behind the wheel and take a virtual ride! This means that customers are no longer limited to the small number of cars on display inside the showroom.
It seems that the uses for VR go beyond what it was originally intended for and that this technologhy will continue to shape our future in many ways - some of which are inconceivable at this time. From healing and pain reduction to time travel and space simulations, things can get pretty exciting with VR, and we're sure that the technology is here to stay. We're living in exciting times indeed!
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