Looking in to virtual health

By | Science & Technology
The Oculus Rift in use. Credit@Sergeygalyonkinviaflickr

Virtual reality (VR) is taking a confident leap from a familiar science fiction concept to general public gadget, when the Oculus Rift hits the shelves in 2015. The release of the Oculus Rift may mark the arrival of a new form of entertainment, revolutionising the way people play video games. However, research is beginning to show how VR may also support counsellors and psychologists in mental health treatment. The Oculus Rift is currently being developed by Oculus VR, who have rapidly gained popularity with their innovative headset, designed to be both an affordable and effective VR system. A number of game developers have utilised the system and, more recently, Facebook bought Oculus VR for $400 million, with a further $300 million providing financial targets are met. It is through this popularity that more researchers are able to apply VR to their mental health therapy.

“This system is going to be about so much more than playing games,” said Dr Albert Rizzo, a researcher at the University of California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Dr Rizzo is one of the first researchers to acknowledge health uses for the Oculus Rift, including his software to help soldiers who have returned from duty with challenging mental conditions. Studies have shown that by improved visualisation of the memory through VR, it allows the patient to more accurately remember the associated emotions, which can then be better processed through psychological aid.

Dr Albert Rizzo using virtual reality to treat challenging mental conditions. Creidt@Albertrizzo

Dr Albert Rizzo using virtual reality to treat challenging mental conditions. Creidt@Albertrizzo

Along with PTSD, a number of phobias have been treated with VR. This works by exposing the patient to the stimulant through a safe, virtual environment. During this session they are gradually provided with information, to allow the patient to become accustomed to the stimulant. Exposure therapy through a virtual world may be more convenient and cost effective, especially for a stimulant such as flying. A study by Rothbaum (2000) showed how virtual flight was just as effective as real life exposure, in treating a phobia of flying. Video games are just the tip of the iceberg in relation to VR, as researchers are allowing their minds to run wild with novel applications. Other examples include; improving sexual health and body image, teaching patients how to more effectively relax through immersive 3D environments, educating children in novel settings and practising public speaking in a more convincing backdrop, to name just a few. A comprehensive review of these applications can be found in a paper by Haniff et al (2013): http://www.academicjournals.org/article/article1396532758_Haniff%20et%20al.pdf

The Oculus Rift and VR systems are in their mainstream infancy and technological improvements are constantly being made to enhance the believability of the virtual worlds. This may be achieved through more immersive, graphically realistic 3D environments or novel tracking systems to incorporate physical movements of the user. For example, Yifei Chai at Imperial College London has combined the Oculus Rift with muscle stimulation technology. Two users wear the Oculus Rift and sensors to detect muscle movement; when one user moves, the other involuntarily also moves. The cameras’ viewpoints are also swapped, so it appears to one user that they have embodied the other. Yifei hopes that this technology may be used to help counsellors better empathise with their patients in therapy sessions. The Oculus Rift also recently released their development kit 2 with improved features. The video below highlights these improvements:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OlXrjTh7vHc

The Ocuclus Rift is only the beginning of this technological journey. Sony’s Morpheus headset is another VR system, compatible with the Playstation 4, set to join the Oculus Rift on shop floors sometime in the near future. Regardless of which system is favoured by the public, it demonstrates the growing interest in VR. This is especially significant to researchers, who have consistently shown positive results using this technology in conjunction with well-practised therapy techniques. Through this ingenious, popular video game revolution, researchers are able to affordably and effectively embrace its applications in the improvement of mental health.

What ways might the Oculus Rift be used other than gaming?

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