Virtual reality is a field where researchers are only beginning to explore the full possibilities. A world where anything is possible could theoretically be a tool in an unlimited number of situations. Several active studies in virtual reality are making some significant findings, showing that immersive computer simulations have the potential to help in the treatment of certain psychological problems, assist patients in physical and neurological rehabilitation and even serve as a pain reliever.
Experts at the Cyberpsychology Lab of the University of Quebec in Outaouais, in Gatineau, Canada, have been studying various psychology applications to virtual reality since 2000. Led by Dr. Stéphane Bouchard, the Lab is currently working on a series of projects evaluating the power of immersive technology in such areas as gambling prevention, anxiety and panic disorders. Read More...
As part of an ongoing study on social anxiety, the Lab is studying the effectiveness of practicing virtual interactions in addition to traditional talk therapy. “I just think it's a fantastic idea to be able to experience situations where you know that the worst cannot happen,” said Gary, a 47-year-old public servant who participated in the pilot project. “You know that it's controlled and gradual and yet feels somehow real.”
The variety of emulated situations in which patients can see themselves is growing in depth and breadth, thanks to constantly improving virtual intelligence and graphics modelling. But the accuracy is not essential for the immersive experience to take place.
“The figures themselves don't even have to be especially realistic to evoke reactions,” said Bouchard. “People with social anxiety, for example, will feel they are being judged by virtual humans who are simply watching them.”
“The great thing about it is that you can do anything you want and just see what happens,” Gary explains about his own virtual therapy. “You get to practice.”
The University of Quebec in Outaouais will be the host the 16th Annual CyberTherapy and CyberPsychology Conference from June 19 to 22, 2011, organized in collaboration with the Interactive Media Institute.
Other research in virtual psychology comes the Institute for Creative Technologies of the University of Southern California, where experts are working with Angelina, a virtual confidant. They have found that interacting with a socially sensitive virtual human helped individuals with social anxiety disclose more about themselves, and more than they would with a live therapist.
The Institute is also developing SimCoach, a virtual agent based on the findings from the Angelina study, developed for the American Army. Thanks to language-recognition software, the agent, whose gender and race can be customized, will serve as an interviewer to find possible mental problems in members of the Army.
“It does not give a diagnosis,” said Jonathan Gratch of USC, co-author of the Angelina study. “But the idea is that the SimCoach would ask people if they would like to see a therapist; and if so, could then guide them to someone in their area, depending on what it has learned.”
A different type of study, led by Dr. Sergei V. Adamovich of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, looked that the effect of repeated exercise performed in a virtual environment in the rehabilitation of arm and hand function for patients recovering from a stroke.
In this study, patients with arm and hand impairments practised reaching and touching virtual objects, picking up and putting them down, hamming a nail and even playing a virtual piano. With the help of a robotic arm, patients attempted increasingly difficult tasks.
Adamovich and his team observed that the patients moved their hands faster over the course of the tests. Ongoing trials use transcranial magnetic stimulation and functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) to map connections in the study patients’ brains as they go through rehabilitation.
“Our preliminary data suggest that, indeed, robot-assisted training in virtual reality may be beneficial for functional recovery after chronic stroke,” explained Adamovich. “Furthermore, our data imply that this recovery may be particularly due to increased functional connections between different brain regions.”
To think that pain tolerance could be affected by virtual reality may be hard to believe. However, it has been used in cybertherapy for sometime and is now the subject of a study undertaken by researchers at the University of Washington’s Human Interface Technology Lab and UW’s Burn Center at Harborview, in Seattle.
When burn injuries heal, the skin tends to tighten, which limits a patient’s mobility. Physical and occupational therapy for burn injuries requires patients to exercises these affected areas to improve the skin’s elasticity and minimize the number of skin grafts and other surgical procedures needed. But this type of rehabilitation can be quite painful, on top of the initial pain of the injured tissue.
Based on the design of UW’s Dr. Hunter Hoffman, SnowWorld was created by Firsthand Technology. Unlike most games, it contains no plot, no intense action or characters and is instead designed to serve as a calming and immersive distraction, keeping the patient’s mind away from the pain endured through rehabilitative therapy.
As part of its study, the research team tested the game with young patients at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas, which specializes in burn care. Preliminary results have shown that patients who used virtual reality reported less pain during therapy than those who didn’t. Many participants also reported enjoying therapy more when SnowWorld was incorporated into their rehabilitation sessions.
“Specific features crafted into the program keep patients calm and relaxed, unlike a conventional video game, which serves to excite and enthrall through rapid motion and breakneck speed,” said Jordan Kampschmidt, one of the project’s clinical researchers.
With these encouraging results, UW researchers hope to pave the way for more burn victims to engage in more rigorous rehabilitation exercise programs, increasing their mobility and accelerating their recovering, with the help of SnowWorld.