Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality

Immersive technology is the application of devices that blur the line between the physical world and digital or simulated world, thereby creating a sense of immersion. Broadly there are two main groups of devices that are used. Virtual Reality (VR) is a completely immersive experience in which users are taken from their real-world surroundings and placed virtually into an entirely new digital environment. ​Augmented Reality (AR), users can still see the environment around them, but digital content is overlaid into their space. Previously these technologies were confined to games or university research projects, however the last few years has seen immense technological advances. This this has now opened up the possibility of VR and AR being used for treatment of variety of mental and physical issues. The first use of immersive technology for treatment was way back in 1994, when the Oregon Research Institute used VR to train mobility-impaired children on how to control their motorised wheelchairs. Originally the devices were cumbersome and extremely expensive and had issues inducing motion sickness, however in the last three years, advances in this field have led to lighter, cheaper and better devices which have solved these initial problems. As such they are now being used to research and treat a huge variety of health conditions. Broadly these can be divided into three areas:

Distraction and Exposure

VR devices can distract attention away from unpleasant stimuli such as pain, or traumatic thoughts, or fears, allowing a patient to spend time immersed in more pleasant activities, perhaps watching a sunset, or sitting on a tropical beach. Companies such as Healthy Mind in France use this to reduce the need for sedation and pain killers in both adult and children undergoing unpleasant medical interventions. This has proved to be remarkably effective, indeed in some instances no drugs have been required at all. VR can also provide effective therapy for specific phobias or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or help recovering addicts with triggering stimuli. The extraordinary ability to create powerful simulations of the scenarios in which psychological difficulties occur allows for situations — flying, heights, or the shocking events that often lie behind PTSD — can all be created. The therapist can then be a guide and coach in-situ, which is often impossible in the real world. It has proved so effective for so many disorders, with the simulations graded in difficulty and repeated as often as necessary, which is simply not possible in the real world. The results have been remarkable, for example in a recent American study, subjects were encouraged to gradually, and safely, approach a virtual spider. By the end, 83% of patients showed a significant improvement in how they dealt with spiders, with some so desensitised to the virtual spider that they could approach a real tarantula with ease. Bravemind in California, takes PTSD sufferers, and utilises the technology to relive traumatic events as part of their treatment process. The results are even more effective in reducing symptoms than traditional treatments, and furthermore these results were maintained 12 months after the treatment. Understandably, the thought of facing a difficult situation — even as part of a course of therapy — can be off-putting for many people. But precisely because it is not real that reticence tends to disappear. We’ll do things in VR that we’d be reluctant to try in normal life. Yet although the computer-generated environment is artificial, our mind and body behave as if it were, and that means that the lessons we learn transfer to the real world.

Motivation

Immersive technology can motivate people to engage in rehabilitation therapy, making the treatment fun or competitive (imagine defending a castle rampart with a longbow to stimulate arm lifts). In the sports world VR is being used in physical performance and rehabilitation. Strivr Labs is helping athletes up their game through VR performance training, both athletes and non-athletes achieve 20% faster physical reaction times after training in VR compared to training in traditional settings. These results have also provided a basis for applications in physical rehabilitation for both athletes as well as patients with physical disabilities.

BehaVR, is using VR to educate, motivate, and activate healthy behaviours. “So much of our health is either directly or indirectly influenced by how we live our lives, how we process the stressors and negative influences that we experience every day,” BehaVR founder Aaron Gani. “We’re helping people cultivate emotional regulation and make more mindful choices. If experience is the best teacher, and if a patient can experience alternative futures of either diminished or enhanced health capacities as a result of behaviours, we can give them a unique perspective or motivation to make different, healthier choices in the moment.” ​Another innovative approach is taken by Biometric VR, who run resilience courses in Jersey using VR and physiological monitoring. They educate people to recognise their own personal response to stress and teach them not to simply reduce their anxiety feelings but instead to embrace them and use them to enhance performance.

Engagement

Immersive technologies intensely capture one’s attention and focus in a way that other mediums cannot. They are an especially effective tool for learning by simulating unique or challenging situations. Using VR and AR, people can be taken on tours of the human body to see in detail how high blood pressure irreparably damages the heart muscle, or how smoking destructs the delicate protective cilia of the lung. The learning possibilities are endless. From experiencing historical events in real time to wandering round the Taj Mahal. Research has demonstrated that utilising this technology results in far better retention and lasting impact.We are on the cusp of a new era in health and education, with total spending on immersive technology predicted to balloon from $9.1 billion in 2017 to nearly $160 billion in 2021 What does this mean? Overall health learning will be rapidly accelerated and much more deeply retained. We will more thoroughly understand and be motivated to practice healthy behaviours. We’ll have better, cheaper and safer therapies for a wide variety of conditions. Education will be more engaging and have a deeper lasting impact.

How can immersive technologies improve mental and physical wellbeing? The answer is in more ways than we can possibly imagine.

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