(Credit: The Wall Street Journal)
The release of the Oculus Rift, HTC vive, PlayStation VR, and others led to the conclusion that 2016 was “the birth year of VR.” Experts assured us that VR would increase in popularity, especially in the gaming industry, with the emergence of the devices with 4K resolution. In an unexpected twist, the sales did not end up meeting expectations and a survey conducted by Thrive Analytics suggested 53% of participants were “not interested” in VR gaming.
One possible explanation for the lack of enthusiasm regarding VR devices is their bulk and potential hazards. Current models involve heavy headsets that cover the entire visual field and could be cumbersome to use. While devoted gamers may turn a blind eye to these inconveniences, it appears the average consumer is harder to persuade.
In spite of its slow start in the gaming world, VR has garnered interest from an unexpected industry. Recently, VR technology has been applied in the medical field with promising results. We believe the first VR boom will take place in medicine with determined patients looking for innovative solutions to their ailments.
Before modern day headsets, a form of “virtual reality” was first applied by Professor Vilayanur Ramachandran in 1993. At this time doctors were looking for solutions for chronic pain suffered by patients with paralysis or phantom limb syndrome. Dr. Ramachandran and his colleagues developed a simple device using a mirror and a box. Patients would put their functional limb in the box and see a “virtual” limb through the mirror. By flexing, stretching and motioning with the functional limb, the brain perceived the “virtual” limb as conducting these movements and this was shown to dramatically alleviate pain. While the mirror box does not directly involve VR headsets, tangentially this research represents the exciting possibilities where VR technology can be used to manipulate visual information to trick the brain and help patients.
While research using the “virtual reality” mirror box is still used today, researchers are also exploring how modern VR technology can be applied. A comparative experiment, conducted at the Heidelberg University in Germany, compared the efficacy of classical mirror boxes to mirror box systems using VR headsets. The experiment compared changes in brain activity in healthy subjects as a proof-of-concept.
Picture (a) shows a mirror box with VR (b) a depiction of the fMRI machine used to measure brain activity and (c) a classical mirror box.
Below are the results from the fMRI scans using the two types of mirror box tasks. The upper panel shows the result of classical mirror boxes, and the lower panel represents the activity in subjects performing the mirror box task with VR headsets. As we can easily see from the figures, the brain activity is stronger and more widespread in the subjects performing the task using the VR headset technology.
Based on these promising results an innovative startup, called Karuna Labs, has developed VR training to help patients find relief from chronic pain. Karuna Labs targets pain in the arms, legs, neck and back.
Now you may be asking, how do you treat chronic pain the neck and back when the mirror box task is based on two limbs? To address these issues Karuna Labs has developed another VR system to encourage widened ranges of motion in patients suffering from chronic pain. In this VR experience patients are asked to wear the VR headset and twist 5°. Under normal conditions, a twisting motion may cause pain in these patients causing reluctance to attempt these movements. The ingenuity of the VR is that the system actually requires a 15° twist to register 5° on the VR screen. Therefore, if patients are able to move the extra distance without pain, they will learn their true capabilities without being hindered by fear. Again this is another example of how VR can be used to distort reality and dramatically improve patient care.
Karuna Labs isn’t the only startup profiting on the possibilities for VR technology in the medical field. Recently, another company, called MindMaze, formed which develops VR devices to help hospitalized stroke patients regain motor function. While the company is fairly new, having only been established in 2012, it has been evaluated at $1B and is a pristine example of the usefulness of VR technology in the medical space.
In addition, MindMaze is also developing VR headsets that can scan facial expressions generated from mimetic muscles with electrodes. This exciting technology captures the user’s real-time expressions and replicates it in the VR world.
As technology advances, we will see improvements in VR devices making them smaller, cheaper and easier to handle. While we expect these changes will increase broader interest in VR devices, the current bulky design and heavy price tag has stalled enthusiasm in the gaming industry.
Conversely, patients looking to improve their quality of life are far more likely to ignore these nuisances. Therefore, we believe while the gaming industry waits for improved devices, VR technology will move on and make its first substantial impact in the medical field.