Virtual Reality – the shift from gaming to healthcare

Current therapy for psychological phenomena like anxiety, depression, and addiction involves going to a therapist on a regular basis (maybe once a week) and talking with them about your progress. They would suggest treatment goals and tips that could help manage your problem and you can try them out during the week. Based on your observations of your mental state, you would report back during your next appointment on how successful the tips were. It could also involve medication. While this process works for some people, it doesn’t for others.

One of the problems with this current approach is that the time duration between consecutive appointments give opportunities for the client to do nothing. Change is scary and fraught with uncertainty – it is hard to accept the need for therapy and harder to find the willpower to stick through the long process. In many cases, suggested strategies may prove to be failures, further lowering one’s willpower and lengthening the duration of the therapy.

Before, solutions to dealing with this problem would involve visiting more experienced therapists, and carefully analysing similar case studies from the therapist’s behalf. In the Wearable Technology Show, 2018, bioengineers proposed another solution – virtual reality (VR).

Up until now, VR has been closely associated with video games. It did take years for this association to be made due to the limitations of the technology but, over the past few years, top technology companies like Facebook and HTC have invested billions of dollars in hardware and cemented this association. As the technology for VR has developed enough to produce games that engage gamers, scientists questioned why it couldn’t be used to engage patients in a similar manner and help them deal with their psychological issues. The idea behind VR therapy is that the VR technology is programmed to display situations that make the patient feel exposed and uncomfortable. These are situations that one normally wouldn’t put themselves in but the fact that it’s VR and not reality provides a metaphorical safety net for the patient.

A simple example of this in practice: an arachnophobe might be exposed to multiple spiders during a therapy session using VR technology. Using the VR, the patient can try out different ways in which they can cope with their fear of spiders while being exposed to one.

While some might argue that the scenario faced with the VR technology is obviously fake and that the computer graphics aren’t realistic enough to effectively simulate real life, scientists argue that this is actually the greatest strength of using VR technology for therapy. Research shows that the physiological symptoms experienced by the patient in response to the VR scenario are just like the ones experienced in response to the same scenario in real life. With respect to the photorealism of the VR scenario, research shows there is no correlation between photorealism and learning transfer. Also, photorealism is commercially very hard to achieve and takes a lot of time and money. Another drawback is that patients would mistrust the technology when they know the scenario is fake but is starting to look real, which would hamper their progress in the therapy.

While the VR technology sounds like it is a good fit for helping cope with phobias, scientists don’t want to stop there. Many believe that the future of VR technology lies in other aspects such as treatment for psychosis, depression, drug addiction and substance abuse. This isn’t an exhaustive list – there are many other interesting uses of it. VR technology offers therapists and psychologists ways to experiment with scenarios that can’t otherwise be conducted in clinics, due to ethical, financial, or social limitations.

One way scientists propose to change a typical therapy meeting with VR is by introducing the concept of Immersive Therapy. This is a therapy intervention rigorously conducted over a day. The patient is exposed to the VR scenario for a certain period of time. Then, they discuss with the therapist about possible coping mechanisms and how successful they were during the time spent in VR. After a period of relaxation, the patient and the therapist reconvene to go onto the next step. It is hypothesized that this could reduce the relapse rate, as reflections on the success of coping mechanisms are done immediately, instead of after a couple of days.

While this article mainly discussed the use of VR technology in therapies, it also has a possible application in training doctors. VR could be used to teach clinical skills that are tool-based, allowing doctors to practice those skills even when they don’t have physical access to those tools at that time.

The future of wearable technology: Smarter and smarter

Google Glass was criticized a lot for its privacy concerns, and smartwatches are only uststarting to take off. So where is the world of wearable technology heading towards?

The Wearable Technology show at ExCel London in March attempted to answer that question. With dozens of exhibitors demonstrating advancements in technology and products, ranging from a playable electric keyboard embroidered into cloth and controlling a toy car with your brain waves, to training firefighting through VR goggles, some of this technology could find its way into your life sooner or later.

The three main categories exhibited were Augmented/Virtual Reality, smart sensors and conductive fabric/yarn.

Size and looks are the big concerns for current consumer wearables, but less so in a working environment, foregoing them for greater comfort and technology. Augmented reality could show you the specific locations that need repairing, have someone look through your eyes and direct you, or display circuit boards and instruction manuals through a flippable display. These are the applications being developed by companies such as Trivisio and Realwear, who already have a growing market in the professional industry. Meanwhile, Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service is working on realistic training exercises through a set of VR goggles, gloves and backpack you can wear.

“Smart” products have been around for quite some time, and if you can think of a clothing/traditional wearable, there probably exists a “smart” version of it with a whole array of sensors and functions built in. And not just for you, but sensors on pet and livestock collars can allow monitoring of their health and tracking activity, for your dog or a farmer checking on his cows. The vitals of whole football teams can be transmitted live for a coach to optimise training, and soon you may be able to pay contactless through a NFC chip built into…anything you want really. A watch, ring, or even fake fingernail. These all already exist but companies are developing the proper support and payment protocols to enable and expand payment capability.

One particular wearable is a light sensor to monitor how light exposure is affecting your sleep and life. It was developed by LYS technologies, founded by Imperial graduate Christina Petersen. After raising over £50,000 on Kickstarter, it is now available for sale, and a newer version of its sensor was showcased at the show.

A good section of the show was dedicated to showcasing the technology and applications of conductive fabric/yarn. It would allow the placing of thin electronics and conduction through clothing and remove the need for external wires. From fun applications such as built-in lights in dresses and heated clothing, to flexible sensors in socks, sleeves, and shirts, there may be challenges to consider before mass-production, such as washability and durability in use.

Unless you already own a few smart wearables, and enjoy being an early adopter of technology, most of these products fill niches that the usual person won’t need, and require some finesse before being able to be marketed commercially. But who knows, maybe your next pendant, shoes ,or jacket will come sensors and smart functions!