What can Oculus Rift do for healthcare?

Virtual reality -- for real, this time?
By Mike Miliard
10:39 AM
Oculus rift

Virtual reality is nothing new, of course. It's been around in various forms since the 1980s. But an emerging technology called Oculus Rift – a state-of-the-art headset meant to enable fully-immersive video gaming – has many people excited about a new era for the concept.

Irvine, Calif.-based Oculus VR, launched in 2012 with help from a Kickstarter campaign that raked in an astonishing $2,437,429 (of a of $250,000 goal) from 9,522 backers worldwide is developing the Rift not strictly for gaming, say company officials, but as way to help "revolutionize the way people experience interactive content."

The world is taking notice in a big way – and not just Facebook, which on March 25 announced its acquisition of the startup for a whopping $2 billion. Approached for an interview by Healthcare IT News, the company demurred: there's "a tremendous backlog of requests and (we) simply won't be able to get to this any time soon," said an Oculus VR spokesperson.

Plenty of other publications have been waxing rhapsodic about the technology's potential impact. Writing in The Observer this spring, Stuart Dredge made the case that Oculus Rift aims to "reboot virtual reality" – wiping away dated images of goggles and gloves, remnants from a previous era where the hype didn't catch on.

Facebook has big plans. "This is just the start," wrote Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg upon announcing the acquisition. "After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences."

And while Dredge rightly points out that the market for VR has still yet to be proven – offering list of much-touted but ultimately underwhelming virtual reality gambits such as Nintendo's Virtual Boy and Second Life – the social media behemoth is betting big that soon "this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people," Zuckerberg says.

One of the biggest areas of impact is healthcare – especially mental health, where truly immersive VR could be a boon to treating anxieties and fears – from acrophobia (heights) to arachnophobia (spiders) to glossophobia (public speaking) – by carefully exposing patients to digital recreations of the things they fear most.

Already, people are putting the technology to work. The website TechRadar spotlights one program developed by psychologist Fernando Tarnogol, the Anxiety Management Virtual Reality Platform

"Studies have proved that virtual reality therapy can be as effective as in-vivo exposure –being exposed to real heights, for instance – or imaginary exposure," he tells the site. "The person doesn't have to be exposed to the real stressor, which is usually a barrier to entering treatment; the person can disengage immediately from the situation should it become unbearable, and the environment and conditions can be structured and tailored to each case.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, an unfortunately common condition after nearly 15 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq is another potentially promising use case, and TechRadar spotlights an initiative at University of Southern California to treat combat-related PTSD with virtual reality.

Many video games and virtual-ish technologies have tread similar ground, but Oculus developers say this is different. As MD+DI quotes Oculus founder Palmer Luckey telling the Games for Health conference in 2013, "Rather than controlling something on a screen you can be present in a virtual space and control everything in a natural way. ...You're trying to actually tap into the fact that if you trick the brain into thinking something is real, then it treats it as if it is real."

It's even finding its way deeper – much deeper into the clinical realm. Another recent MD+DI report profiles one hospital that's using the technology to help ease anxiety for patients in the operating room. 

In one case, a patient at Hospital Perpetuo Socorro in Alicante, Spain, a patient in her 60s opted for local anesthesia – rather than the general anesthesia she'd initially requested – when it was shown to her that virtual reality could help ease her anxiety. Clinical tests have even shown that it can effect decreases in blood pressure and heart rate.

"After introducing Oculus Rift virtual reality glasses into the operating theatre for the first time, the traumatic feeling that the patient experiences is improved," according to a statement released by the hospital. "This way, we can achieve full immersion in a virtual world that keeps the patient away from the sounds and lights of an operating room and takes him to a relaxing world, very different from the present."

Even as Oculus technology is still a good way off from general availability and use, the prospective applications keep piling up. In one Quora Q&A, futurist Emmanuel Fabella, MD, highlighted some of his favorites.

These include medical training ("could the 3-D, immersive properties of Oculus Rift enhance or substitute for schooling in the medical fields, continuing education and in-service workshops?"); augmentation for telemedicine encounters; surgical simulations and assorted other applications – from helping with autism (virtual reality can help kids "learn social cues (and) fine-tune motor skills") to palliative care (VR could offer the permanently disabled and terminally ill "the opportunity to once again experience a degree of normality").

All of this is very exciting, but it's worth noting that, in extreme cases, Oculus' most commonly intended use – good old fashioned shoot 'em up video games – could potentially have a deleterious effect on users' health.

In Wired this past month, Chris Kohler penned a story titled, "The Oculus Rift Game That's So Real It Nearly Destroyed Me." In it, he describes a game, based on the Alien movies, where, "I've got my back pressed against the wall of an abandoned spaceship, and I'm inching down a hallway, my head darting left and right, looking for danger everywhere."

He wonders: "(I)s this the one? Is this the Oculus Rift demo where I rip the headset off my face and bolt, terrified, out of the room?"

If so, there are plenty of other researchers waiting in the wings with innovative uses of the very same technology to help him get over the real trauma of virtual extraterrestrials.

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