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VR can already help people heal — and it’s just the beginning

By Lisa Peyton, originally published on Venturebeat.com 

Fran gracefully glides around the grand ballroom, sparkling pink ball gown flowing at her heals and the firm grip of her son’s arm around her waist. They are surrounded by friends and family as they elegantly move around the room in perfect harmony, looking as though they must have practiced for hours. Fran is celebrating her 90th birthday in style, and although Parkinson’s disease has limited her mobility over the last decade, today technology is enabling the joy of movement she knew when she was 20.

“Memories are real. If you’re dancing in a ballroom in a virtual world or in a ballroom in Portland, Oregon — you were dancing in a ballroom. It was an experience,” Donna Z. Davis, Ph.D, the director of the strategic communications program at the University of Oregon. She witnessed the power of virtual environments to heal and help real people like Fran. “This is not about replacing, it is about augmenting. It’s technological augmentation in a way that provides for them beyond the capabilities of the physical world. So somebody without legs or with Parkinson’s can go dance. Someone who lives in isolation can have a social life.”

Power to heal

Davis has been working in the virtual reality space for over 10 years. The last three years her focus, through the support of a National Science Foundation grant, has been studying embodiment in VR spaces and the role that the body plays in shaping the mind. Her findings along with the results of several other studies indicate that there is a link between our physical selves and our digital selves, or avatars. What we see our bodies do on screen can positively impact what our bodies can do in the real world. Davis was first introduced to this phenomenon while working with Fran and her daughter, Barbie. As Fran enjoyed navigating her virtual world with ease, she began to have the confidence to do more physically demanding tasks in the physical world.

After meeting Fran and Barbie, Davis and her colleague, Tom Boellstorff at UC Irvine, were invited to join the newly formed virtual support group for others suffering from Parkinson’s. They have been meeting virtually for over seven years and Fran has developed a following of support group participants that refers to this healing power of virtual reality as “the Fran effect.”

Although Davis primarily works with the “ability diverse” or those who are challenged in both visible and invisible ways, she believes the benefits are not limited to this population. “How many of us are trapped inside a body or a place that doesn’t allow us to really live our lives in a way that we feel capable of? These technologies may open those doors in really exciting ways.”

Above: Donna Davis, far right, celebrates Fran’s 90th birthday with members of their virtual support group

New technologies, new opportunities

While much of her work over the last decade was done in a 3D environment on a 2D screen, Davis is pioneering therapeutic applications in the more immersive social 3D platforms like Sansar and High Fidelity. While this new medium provides increased immersion and freedom from physical limitations, it also provides additional accessibility challenges.  Currently these platforms don’t rely on text chat and instead use voice technology as the primary means of communication. This makes it difficult for someone with speech and hearing impairments to use the platform successfully. Hand controllers coupled with physical movement are also required to navigate these virtual spaces, which is impossible for those suffering from debilitating physical conditions. However, Davis and her research partner and cultural anthropologist, Tom Boellstorff, have been working with the teams developing these platforms to help ensure they support the needs of their users.

Above: Tom Boellstorff (center) and Cecii Zapien helps Cody with a headset and controllers in order to experience the 3D virtual world. They are accompanied by Linden Lab executive, Bjorn Laurin.

Image Credit: Draxtor Despres, ourdigitalselves.com

Davis and Boellstorff recently visited Linden Lab, Second Life’s creators, to try to co-opt these new immersive tools for the unique needs of their research population.  They were accompanied by Cody, a man who has suffered from severe physical challenges with cerebral palsy resulting from a tragic childhood accident. Cody can’t move his hands or arms which would typically render hand controllers useless, however Cody’s caregiver placed the ‘hand’ controller on Cody’s foot allowing him to experience, for the first time, his real body ‘moving’ his 3D avatar’s arms.

Caught on film as part of an upcoming documentary entitled “Our Digital Selves,” Cody’s joy of experiencing this type of movement was undeniable. The kicking movement required to move his avatar’s arms not only produced a feeling of joy, it is also a vital part of the work he does on a regular basis with this physical therapist.

Davis believes making something seen as a chore, such as physical therapy, a joyful experience can be a powerful motivator. “Immersive environments can help motivate patients to do painful or difficult physical therapy movements. Make it something that’s fun, make it joyful. How do you create an opportunity that gets people to go beyond themselves in healthy and supportive ways? Using the virtual world for physical therapy can help create that opportunity.”

Above: Donna Davis and Cody during their recent visit to Linden Lab.

Image Credit: Draxtor Despres, ourdigitalselves.com.

Additional research

Since Davis began her pioneering work almost a decade ago, there have been many additional studies linking virtual reality with healing outcomes and pain management. Several studies have focused on using virtual technologies to help with chronic pain and conditions such as ‘phantom limb pain’ often experienced by amputee patients. One such study determined that VR can “trick” the brain into believing the patient is using the limb in the virtual environment, thereby alleviating the sensory conflict of not having use of the limb in the real world. The increased sense of presence and immersion afforded by newer VR technologies can often be enough of a distraction to help patients manage painful conditions without the use of highly addictive pain medications. This fact has made some established medical institutions in the US slow to ratify the new methods for fear of alienating the powerful pharmaceutical lobby.

Commercial opportunities

Given the amount of new research showing the potential of VR to heal both emotional and physical conditions, it’s no surprise that many innovative VR companies not bound by traditional methods have stepped up to help find new solutions to old problems. One of the most successful applications is the use of VR to treat PTSD. Virtually Better, a company that Dr. Skip Rizzo and his team out of UCLA founded, developed a simulation that would re-create the conditions that Iraq war veterans experienced. “Virtual Iraq” proved successful, helping treat over 70 percent of PTSD sufferers, and that has now become a standard accepted treatment by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. They also support applications of VR-based therapy for aerophobia, acrophobia, glossophobia, and substance abuse.

Another U.S.-based company, Firsthand, has developed a platform to help manage chronic and acute pain. The 3D immersive, game-like environment uses bio-feedback sensors to help patients regulate physical activities, like breathing, in order to calm the mind and promote mindfulness. Their website claims that “patients can use a technology solution for pain management with no pharmaceutical side effects.”

Physical and occupational therapy is another field that benefits from the advancements in VR technology. Companies like Mindmaze and VRHealth offer platforms that help practioners’ administer various types of VR physical therapy treatments. MindMotion, developed by Mindmaze, creates virtual environments therapists can customize for a patient’s preferences and needs. These virtual enhancements motivate them to be more consistent and get the most from their prescribed exercise programs. The platform also allows for real-time multisensory feedback, so patients can monitor their own performance.

There are also several companies building platforms to help therapists and counselors leverage these new technologies within their private practice. Limbixoffers clinicians a ‘plug and play’ VR therapy solution and Psious offers a monthly subscription package that includes VR therapy training, a platform enabling VR sessions with clients, marketing support and client session reporting.

What’s next?

We are just beginning to understand the true potential for immersive, VR environments to change how we think and feel. There are those who fear the negative implications of these hyper-real environments and worry they will replace the physical world. Davis sees the virtual world not as a replacement for the physical world but as an enhancement. “That’s the thing about our work that I love most, is that we’re forcing people to look at the positive potential for virtual reality — maybe not even as positive, but normative — as opposed to the dystopic narrative most commonly represented.”

Davis believes there is great potential for VR to help revolutionize the health care, retail and fitness industries but more importantly she is hopeful it will transform our values as a society. VR social spaces can help remove cultural, racial, gender and economic barriers that prejudice our interactions in the real world. “When do we start to value somebody’s mind and heart? I think in the VR space you begin to place a value on their mind and their heart rather than physical beauty because those are the things that are driving your interaction with that person.”