The Virtual Road To Recovery – Does The Oculus Rift Have Potential Medical Applications?

In case you’ve been living under a rock – or just haven’t been browsing YouTube all that much lately – the Oculus Rift is a promising new device that is currently in the throes of making virtual reality ‘cool’ again. Essentially this is a set of VR eye goggles that the user straps to their face, which then provides them with head tracking and stereoscopic 3D, widescreen vision of the virtual world they happen to have loaded. Already there are programs that will let you drift through space admiring planets, that have you wandering through haunted woods, and that have you shooting bad guys and dodging bullets.

Photo Credit: Oona Räisänen

But the potential uses of this device go well beyond just distracting tech demos and shoot-em-up games. Not only does the Oculus Rift have clear and obvious uses in business (think virtual reality meetings with clients halfway across the world), but it could also be used wonderfully as an educational tool or for communication.

Better yet, it might also have potential therapeutic and medical uses. Read on to see how virtual reality could someday help those with injuries and illnesses on the (virtual) road to recovery…

Therapeutic

Photo Credit: Inazakira

I find it highly surprising that there isn’t already a meditative game on the Oculus Rift, but that said there are certainly some experiences available that have the same effect. Take ‘Blue Marble’ for instance. This is a tech demo that has you drifting through space in Earth’s orbit while listening to your favorite music. At once you feel a sense of awe but also a sense of incredible calm (particularly if you happen to have a decent set of headphones too). This illustrates perfectly how effective the rift could be in giving us a feeling of calm and a way to ‘escape’ from the stresses of the modern world. As a way to combat stress, or even as a way to treat serious psychological traumas, this could be an incredibly useful tool.

Phantom Limbs

Photo Credit: Beth Scupham

While the above is merely speculation, the Rift has already been shown to be useful in at least one therapeutic setting – that being in the treatment of ‘Phantom Limb’ syndrome. This scary sounding condition is what happens when an individual loses a limb and finds themselves still experiencing itches and feeling as though the limb is there – which can be quite distressing.

However, when using certain games and applications on the Rift, patients are able to look down and ‘see’ their limbs in a virtual setting again. Early studies have shown that this can actually be useful in helping them to come to terms with the loss and to overcome the condition.

Rehabilitation

Photo Credit: Daniil Vasiliev

A fair amount has been written on the use of traditional computer games when improving spatial awareness, reactions and other abilities. Conceivably though when combined with virtual reality this could be even more powerful and could be a great way to help people ‘find their legs’ again in a virtual setting before having to use them out in the ‘real world’.

The Rift could also be useful for rehabilitation in other ways – for instance in helping patients with mental illnesses to adapt to interacting with other people. Already there are facilities in the real world that provide mock-up environments such as shops street scenes where patients can practice interactions and general behavior, but using the Rift to achieve something similar could potentially be safer and more cost effective for the same purpose.

Coping

Photo Credit: Ian Hughes

Finally, even if the Rift is not able to help treat the condition itself, then it might be useful as a way to help patients cope with their new situation and to come to terms with a disability. If you are unable to walk for instance, then being able to fly in a virtual setting might help you to experience a similar sense of liberation and freedom that could be highly therapeutic. While they might be trapped in a hospital bed, virtual reality could give patients the opportunity to explore other worlds or sights right here on Earth – even to interact with other people in their situation in a natural environment.

We’re a little way off from that yet, but these ideas show just how far we’ve come and just how promising this new technology really is.

This post has been authored by Jack Turner who is a part of the team at Freedom Lift Systems, a firm dealing in outdoor wheelchair lifts for residential settings. He is a voracious reader and he catches up to his favorite books in his leisure time. Click here to know about his company.