Imagine going to the doctor for a painful procedure, and being transported to a tranquil island to listen to gently-breaking waves on a sunny shore.
It sounds impossible, but it’s one of the uses for virtual reality, which has been big in the headlines this year in the tech and gaming industries.
It’s been a big year for ‘VR’, with a new Star Wars ‘experience’ opening in London, where fans can experience interactive, real-time effects, and an announcement from Mozilla that it plans to push social virtual reality to the internet.
And in October, the first Oscar Award for a to a virtual reality experience was awarded, to an installation artwork called Carne y Arena.
But away from the paparazzi and video game worlds, VR is having a big impact in the medical sector, where it is being used to support treatment for dementia, pain management, physical therapy, and cognitive rehabilitation.
Sam Williamson works at Bright Care, a home agency care service in Edinburgh in Scotland.
He says VR can have an “immersive and positive” effect on dementia patients.
“Often what helps them deal with their condition is to be in peaceful surroundings,” he said. “But often people suffering with dementia will be unable to get out and about easily, which is where VR can be helpful.”
A VR headset is all that’s needed to allow Williamson’s patients to access the outside world, bringing them a sense of peace and escape when their actual physical circumstances are limited.
Karen Phillip, a lifestyle doctor working in hypnotherapy and psychotherapy, says VR can help treat behavioural issues “such as smoking, weight loss, reducing anxiety, recovering from the end of a relationship, removing phobias and eliminating past baggage”.
She says VR is particularly useful for fear exposure, a method used to treat phobias and unreasonable fears, because sufferers can confront the things that frighten them the most in a way that feels real – but isn’t.
However Sam Williamson cautions against seeing VR as a long-term escape from reality.
“I worry that the VR environments can be so immersive and calm in comparison to the real world, that some sufferers could almost become incapable of functioning without it,” he says.
“This would cut them off from their friends and family, and could make their condition even worse.”
Dr Phillip acknowledges that any behaviour – including VR use – carries the risk of being addictive, but says she doesn’t share Mr Williamson’s concerns.
“If people are seeking VR for personal development and growth it should be that when they feel empowered and strong they would not be as intently seeking VR,” she says.
She also believes patients who need one-to-one therapy will be better off with – and more likely to seek support from – a real live therapist.
“VR is less personal so [it’s]less likely to attract continued use… and I believe if people feel deeper issues are presenting they will use a personal therapist even if via Skype,” she says.
The overlap between VR for gaming and for health is also being explored by researchers like Daish Malani, who designs VR rehabilitation software for people with brain injuries, and says he looks forward to a time when people can meet ‘for real’ in the virtual world.
“Until now, medical availability has been based on whether you have the time or resources to get to the location of your health care professional,” he says.
“Virtual Reality allows patients to meet doctors on the other side of the globe, provides motivation through immersion plus a chance for patients to travel the world while being in a hospital bed plus provide social interaction in shared virtual environments. The future is bright.” – Isabell Greigeritsch (@IzzyAnnaGreig)