Published on March 10th, 2015 | by Ed Devlin0
With every technological advancement, science finds ways to utilise new tools or build upon and improve long-established techniques. Medical imaging technologies, such as MRI or ultrasound, provided doctors with unprecedented minimally-invasive insights into patient health and pathology. Molecular tools to delve into genomes, both human and otherwise, have revolutionised our understanding of disease and opened as yet unexplored ventures into truly personalised medicine. Virtual reality (“VR”), previously confined to the realms of science fiction, could become the latest tool in the advancing arsenal of science, art, and perhaps even more fields.
In terms of computing power, virtual reality can be a bit of a conundrum. The most popular approach is a headset (I got my hands on an Oculus Rift DK2) that provides a small screen for each eye — which means any particularly graphically-intensive images must be rendered twice. Curiously, however, the first VR demos — while looking like a video game from 15 years ago — feel instantly more immersive than the latest CGI blockbuster. Some of the most immersive demos place the user on a rollercoaster, complete with sounds of rushing wind and — on more advanced headsets — a complete 360-degree viewpoint to admire. It’s quite easy to lose track of time (or your lunch, depending on the ride).
The potential effects of a simulated environment in which the user can interact are limitless. Already, training courses have been developed that help to reinforce medical and emergency response training. One such example is a virtual ebola clinic, developed by a small group of programmers in just 48 hours. Designed to mimic everything from triage of patients (in a manner which ensures safety of medical personnel) to condensation building up inside your face-shield from the hot and humid environment, the simulation has huge potential to prepare medics for what to expect in such a location. The cramped clinics, difficult working conditions and unexpected logistical issues can presumably be difficult to impart with regular training.
Phobia and rehabilitation are another key area that the VR community has considered. Arachnaphobic? Picture yourself sitting at a table. In front of you sits a very small spider in a carefully sealed jar. Once comfortable, you can increase the ‘difficulty’; perhaps the jar is now open, and the tiny spider is free to run around. Or perhaps you’ve started to conquer your fear a little — you physically lean forward and get a little closer to your new eight-legged friend. Coming face-to-face with your fears is a key facet of psychotherapeutic treatment of phobia, and virtual reality can provide a level of control over situations that would otherwise be impossible. Most importantly, it gives this control directly to the patient.
Virtual reality has already been used extensively by military rehabilitation clinics for treatment of PTSD — with great success. In some cases, the therapist controls the environment the patient inhabits, with the ability to add sounds, vibrations and even smells as stimulus.
The virtual reality headset is just the beginning. New immersive devices are being added to this incredible repertoire every day, including low-friction walking surfaces for 360-degree treadmills (Omniw) and infrared camera arrays to detect hand movements (Leap Motion). With simulated virtual environments that can be completely controlled and customised by the user, science is about to get a whole new set of tools to play with, and a whole new world to explore.