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

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.”

User Generated Content and #VR: A VIRTUAL world experiment in Second Life

User Generated Content and #VR: A VIRTUAL world experiment in Second Life

Converse sneakers in SL - Second Life

User generated content in Second Life houses MANY representations of big brands, such as Converse, created by brand advocates.

In the final chapters of his book, Convergence Culture, Jenkins (2006) outlines the characteristics of a paradigm shift to a ‘participatory culture’. He cites many examples of the tensions that are arising between the old mass media and the new media revolution. The digital tools that have allowed the average consumer to find a voice online and create user-generated content are also being exploited by larger brands, attempting to mimic this grassroots phenomenon.

As I read Jenkins (2006) observations, I was struck by what may have been an unintentional experiment testing this new paradigm. Many of the issues raised in the text, reminded me of events that had transpired years before in a virtual world called Second Life. SL, as it’s referred to by insiders, was started in 2003 and is COMPLETELY crafted from user-generated content. The platform gained popularity briefly but never quite made its way onto the list of mainstream social networking platforms.


SL had several obstacles keeping it from going mainstream, ranging from technical issues and a steep learning curve to adult and x-rated content. The latter, coupled with the old media’s focus on what they deemed as unacceptable content worked to marginalize the entire SL community. Jenkin’s (2006) sums it up this way, “Old media still defines which forms of cultural expression are mainstream through its ability to amplify the impact of some user-generated content while labeling other submissions out of bounds.”  Articles like the recent post, Second Life: what went wrong?, focused on the platforms adult content getting into the hands of children. The author calls SL ‘a disturbing hive of graphic sexual content, extreme rape fantasies, and vendors selling webcam sex…children were inhabiting some of the most hardcore locations’. This may be true but children are accessing porn on the Internet everyday and I don’t hear a call for turning ‘off’ the Internet. Just like the web, SL houses a myriad of communities OTHER than those that are adult-themed.

My friend and old SL resident, Draxtor Despres, has made it his mission to tell the stories that mainstream media has chosen to overlook. An amazing example of user-generated content, his YouTube channel houses dozens of expertly crafted videos telling a very different SL story. There’s the video about an elderly women with Parkinson’s who is finding renewed vigor thanks to her time in SL. The video outlines how mirroring what her avatar does on the screen actually strengthens her neural pathways in real life and allows her better mobility.

Another story outlines the flourishing fashion industry in SL and explores the relationship between avatar and real-life.

Better Way to Learn?

Back in its heyday, SL was seen as a promising alternative for virtual learning. Many institutions created SL islands and universities. Educators worked to provide online students with a more engaging environment. Today many of the university campuses have disappeared and online learning has moved in a different direction.

Educators my have overlooked the fact that learning happens in a very different way in SL. Instead of learning in virtual classrooms, SL residents learn by interacting with the virtual environment. Jenkin’s (2006) references “scaffolding” as a means to help students try out new skills. He describes it this way, “In the classroom scaffolding is provided by the teacher. In a participatory culture, the entire community takes on some responsibility for helping newbies find their way.” This is VERY much a part of SL culture. The older, more experienced SL residents take it as their duty to help ‘newbs’ maneuver the steep-learning curve that is required to truly enjoy SL. The learning happens by attempting to navigate and participate in the community.

Starbucks in Secon LifeBrands in SL?

As SL was becoming more popular and recruiting more die-hard users, brands decided they wanted to market to this extremely desirable demographic. Several corporations, including IBM, coca-cola and KLM, built an in-world presence. In very much the same way consumers have rejected ‘astroturf’ or FAKE grassroots media, SL residents rejected big brands attempting to hijack their virtual community. Corporations attempted to use this new media platform to sing the same old song – buy our products. They built virtual cars, virtual clothes, virtual jewelry, virtual beverages and expected residents to assume some sort of brand affinity. Instead of speaking the language of the residents and giving them the power to assume an active role in their brands, companies attempted to control the message. This was a HUGE failure. IBM, who once held global company meetings in SL has left all but left the space. Companies have pulled the plug on SL but instead of gaining some self-awareness of how they could have better engaged this community, they simply deemed all of SL a huge waste of time.

KLM in Second Life

The branding that survives in SL today are the items that have been built organically by SL residents and NOT corporations. You can still find Converse sneakers and virtual Starbucks coffee shops. Are these brands aware that their brand has been co-opted by virtual avatars? Probably not. Years ago these brands may have tried to shut down this type of content.  What would they do today?

Looking at these virtual content creators through the lens of today’s marketers, we see a group of brand advocates replicating items they love in SL. These are the consumers of marketers dreams, referred to as the ‘loyals’ in Jenkins (2006) writings. Marketing luminaries, such as AdAge editor, Scott Donaton, realized years ago that attempting to control the narrative would have negative effects on the brand. Second Life has proven this to be true.


Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Cook, J. (2013). Second Life: What Went Wrong?. Retrieved from kernalmag.com. http://kernelmag.dailydot.com/features/report/4285/second-life-what-went-wrong/