It’s no secret that virtual reality, or VR, is gradually finding its way into mainstream culture.

When we think of VR, we may conjure up images from films and series such as Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror or Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One: almost terrifyingly immersive gaming experiences with users fighting for their lives in alternate realities. But thankfully, most would argue that the future of VR doesn’t look quite that horrifying, and a whole host of industries are beginning to explore its intriguing capabilities.

VR can help to give people a greater understanding of the world around them—from allowing schoolchildren to take a virtual trip to the Great Barrier Reef, to allowing Ikea customers a simulated tour of a fully furnished kitchen. But many believe that the greatest potential for VR lies in the healthcare sector. And over the past few years, healthcare has become one of the biggest adopters of VR—using it to complement medical teaching, treat phobias, and aid scientific research.1

For example, the citizen science project Sea Hero Quest, initially developed as a mobile game in 2016 researchers from University College London, the University of East Anglia and Alzheimer’s Research UK. It was relaunched as a VR sequel with a similar goal: to test the public’s memory and spatial navigation skills, analyse the results, and use it to inform dementia research. The aim of the game is for players to find mythical sea creatures across a variety of different locations, navigating their boat through both familiar and unfamiliar territories. The data created through each user’s gameplay helps to develop an understanding of what ‘normal’ mental aging looks like across a wide range of demographics; giving researchers an indication of when deterioration starts to occur in dementia.2,3

Building on the success of the mobile version, Sea Hero Quest VR enables users to guide the direction of the boat with their eyes, so subtler changes in navigation can be monitored, recording changes in orientation every 1.5 degrees compared to every 22.5 with the mobile game. So why is this important? This level of precision can create a much more detailed dataset, while the tracking of head movements can provide researchers with more accurate information on how users find their bearings, and at what points they hesitate: complementing the data collected in the mobile game.2–4

The mobile version of Sea Hero Quest generated the equivalent of over 12,000 years of lab-based research

With this functionality, the creators have also been able to replicate highly credible lab-based experiments such as the Morris Water Maze (a spatial memory test typically involving rodents), which would not have been possible in a mobile format. This has created “an even more immersive and intuitive diagnostic assessment of navigation ability in people who may potentially develop dementia”, in the words of Michael Hornberger, one of the games creators.4 The new VR version of the game was developed by Alzheimer’s UK in partnership with Deutsche Telekom, also known as T-Mobile. The collaboration has demonstrated how cooperation between healthcare and technology companies can lead to innovative and successful health solutions.

VR is also showing promise in the treatment of amputees: up to 90% of whom experience sensations in their phantom limb, which can often be strong and persistent pain, the cause of which isn’t entirely understood. Traditional treatments haven’t shown much success in providing relief for most people who suffer from this pain, but gamified training and immersive VR activities have shown potential.5

The effectiveness of a low-cost VR system was recently studied in two individuals with lower-limb amputations, over several weeks. With the apparatus, they were able to view a real-time rendering of two intact legs in a head-mounted display, while playing a set of custom games. Measurements from inertial sensors mounted on intact and residual limbs were used to control the movements of the virtual legs, in each one-hour VR session. And the results were encouraging: both individuals experienced a significant reduction of phantom limb pain immediately after each session, and a progressive reduction of pre-test pain across the duration of the study.5 Although this is preliminary data, the results still indicate that VR could be a beneficial therapy for phantom limb pain, and are supported by a number of other investigations.6,7

These are just two examples of where VR is showing potential within the healthcare space. In addition to these, VR technology is also being used to help people understand autism, teach medical students through live streaming of operations, and rehabilitate the brains of stroke patients, amongst even more uses.1,8

Aside from its use as a direct treatment, many believe that VR has broader applications, such as patient education and reducing stress before procedures. If these were effective, they could have the potential to improve the overall patient experience and in turn, patient-reported outcomes.9 But is this realistic? As the uptake of VR in healthcare continues to increase, only time will tell.

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