Virtual Reality - An Efficient Approach to Learning and Medicine

Virtual reality technology is quickly becoming a common tool in healthcare, education, and research. It has seen uses for treatment of patients and clinical operations. Schools and corporations have integrated it in their curriculum and training. In research fields, the technology is effective in reducing or replacing the uses of animals as part of the research protocols.

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality (VR) is a simulated environment created with computer technology. For human users it typically involves a headset for visual and audio interface sometimes paired with handheld controllers, motion trackers, or other connected devices. The aim is to simulate real or imagined experiences that enable their use for patient treatment, training and research. In addition, this technology is making major inroads into recreational uses including exercise programs and is becoming a technology that is part of everyday life worldwide.

Applications in Medicine

One of the most promising fields in which VR technology is being deployed is therapeutics. The adaptability of VR allows it to be applied to treat a surprising amount of different ailments. One such treatment is for the management of acute and chronic pain. Patients become immersed in the VR environment where their attention is diverted away from the pain. This phenomenon is known as the gate control theory of pain and has been studied for treatment of acute pain. As for chronic pain, a study done at the University of Tennessee Knoxville demonstrated that VR reduced pain by 33% post-session and up to 60% during each VR session. This suggests that VR may be a viable alternative to typical opioid treatments and the incumbent dangers associated with that form of treatment.

Treatment of various mental health disorders using VR has become possible with emphasis on highly customizable experiences capable of being tailored precisely for specific patients and conditions. Exposure-based VR treatments have been successful in treating anxiety disorders. It also shows promise in treatment of depression and schizophrenia as well as substance-related, eating, and sexual disorders. VR-enhanced extinction training for phobias and post-traumatic stress proved to be significantly effective through numerous studies. In some cases, VR is used as a tool for better understanding disorders by eliciting psychiatric symptoms from the environment.

Patient-as-user applications are most frequently used; however, VR is becoming more and more useful as a clinician tool. 3D imaging visualization, surgical planning, and radiotherapy contouring are just a few of the vital use cases for VR as a clinical tool. As an intervention aid, it can assist or guide surgeries, biopsies, and other invasive procedures. Many of these applications have proven to be as good as or better than the current methods and are likely to improve further as VR technology progresses.

Applications in Training

Highly specialized vocations like surgeons and astronauts have been using VR training for many years. Flight operations and surgical procedures of all kinds are prepared for using VR systems. As the technology becomes more commonplace, it is being used for a wider range of learned skills. A study on the use of VR in nursing education showed that it was as effective at building skills as regular training and more effective at improving knowledge. Naturally, real-world experience will likely always be more valuable but virtual experiences are much more cost effective. Training first in VR can better prepare workers for the real thing afterwards while saving institutions from the costs of physical materials. In fact, the cost of deploying VR has plummeted due to its recent commercialization. Many corporations are using VR to train at every level of operation from CEO to ground level worker. From technical procedures to soft skills like customer service, VR is quickly becoming a ubiquitous tool for efficient training.

Applications in Research

Recently, VR has seen extensive use in animal research. Virtual environments are utilized in studying learning and memory, behavior, drug development, and more. Typically, the subject will be fixed or stationary with the virtual environment moving around them as they interact with it. This comes with its own set of problems as the animal cannot move naturally as it would in the real world and can sometimes cause undue stress factors. To resolve this issue, freely moving VR systems have been devised providing artificial visual feedback as the animal interacts with the space. Sensory feedback does not stop with visuals either. Many studies integrate sound cues or even highly controlled spatially distributed chemicals to study olfactory-driven behavior. With such frequent use, the VR systems and simulations are becoming increasingly more advanced. Some speculate that virtual simulations could replace animal models altogether. If possible, this could massively reduce the time and cost of such testing as well as address the moral objections of animal research.

Next steps in virtual reality

There is still plenty of room for improvement in VR simulations. At the most basic levels, graphical upgrades can provide deeper immersion and more advanced motion tracking which in combination will allow users to more precisely interact with the virtual world. Procedural generation technology is being developed for streamlined traversal through large dense environments. Systems can always be made smaller, cheaper, and more accessible. There are the cases of mild side effects such as headaches, dizziness, and nausea that should be addressed. These drawbacks can lessen the immersive experience or even prevent use completely. Maintaining the immersive nature can also be aided by developing more efficient control methods that allow users to naturally interact with the virtual environment as they would in actual reality. With the current boom in VR use, many of these advancements are likely to come in the near future.

Written by: Mathew Loren

Keywords: virtual reality, augmented reality, simulation, therapy, education, research

Categories: technology, other