Affordable VR Will Take Immersive Therapy Mainstream
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A stroke patient stretches out a weak arm and grabs a hovering spaceship. A chronic pain sufferer uses her head to bat balls at cartoon bears. A veteran relives his battlefield experiences in a safe environment to help deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Therapeutic approaches that immerse patients in virtual environments abound. Until recently, though, the treatments were mostly limited to severe cases in clinical settings because the commercial hardware was expensive. High-end virtual reality setups require not just the headset, which can run several hundreds of dollars, but motion-tracking sensors as well as a dedicated game console or a fast-processing PC with a heavy-duty graphics card. The costs can start adding up into the thousands of dollars.

But thanks to a recent proliferation of VR hardware, including headsets that incorporate a user's smartphone, prices are falling faster than you can blast a bear. Samsung's Gear VR costs $99. Google's new soft Daydream View, which comes with a Bluetooth controller and limited motion-tracking controller, currently sells for $79. The Mi VR Play from Chinese tech giant Xiaomi is only $29. Mobile VR startup, VicoVR, which is developing an affordable full-body tracking system, is expected to ship their first units by the end of the year. A price hasn't been announced yet, but when the company launched their IndieGoGo funding campaign earlier this spring, the all-inclusive gaming bundle went for $219.

"Anytime anybody has written a paper about virtual reality they say, 'I found out this cool thing and someday when VR is in the home to help people with chronic pain or with physical therapy...' It was always something that was coming," said Andrea Stevenson Won, an assistant professor in the Communication Department at Cornell University who studies virtual embodiment.

Well, that someday has come, and for researchers and patients alike, this accessible tech could transform the way we treat physical and mental ailments. Here's how.

True Immersion

Because of the increasing affordable of virtual reality setups, medical professionals won't need sprawling setups to achieve full immersion. Sensors will be embedded in the hardware, in clothing and in other wearables. Alternate realities will be achieved with temperature-changing gloves, full-body suits that vibrate for physical sensations and devices that produce realistic smells and even virtual tastes.

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"We're going to make these as immersive as possible — not just visually immersive but sensorially immersive," said Danielle Levac, an assistant professor in Northeastern University's Department of Physical Therapy, Movement and Rehabilitation Sciences as well as the director of the Rehabilitation Games & Virtual Reality Laboratory.

The technology could help speed the recovery of someone who's had a stroke, for example. In the aftermath, stroke victims suffer from physical and cognitive impairments that turn simple errands into incredible challenges. Grocery shopping involves mobility, planning, organization and decision-making, Levac explained.

With virtual reality, the patient could practice navigating a store, reaching for objects on a shelf, asking for assistance and checking out. And because gaming companies are working on algorithms that change virtual interactions in real time to match the patient's capabilities, therapists can set the VR program to a beginner level and then gradually scale up the difficulty until the person feels confident enough to visit an actual store.

It's almost like having your therapist inside the game, personalizing exactly how far you should extend an arm to grab a fake spaceship.

Brainpower

When a VR experience is truly interactive, that tricks the brain. Mind-numbing, repetitive movements for rehab can be transformed into magical quests, sci-fi adventures and daring feats. "Maybe your goal is to grab the spaceship as it goes across the screen and throw it at an alien ship or planet," Levac said. "There's a body of literature that says VR can get people to move in ways they might not know they're capable of in a real session."

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While at Stanford, Stevenson Won worked on VR pilot studies to treat a syndrome known as CRPS that causes intense concentrated body pain. Several CRPS patients donned headsets and put optical trackers on their ankles. Virtual balloons materialized in a random sequence. When the patient moved in a way so the avatar landed a kick, the balloon made a popping sound. The haptic floor also vibrated. Gone was the wincing and groaning that usually accompanied standard physical therapy sessions to move their affected limbs.

Layered Reality

Virtual reality doesn't work for everyone. Some people have a hard time and although simulation sickness isn't common, it can happen, Andrea Stevenson Won cautioned.

Augmented reality, where your surroundings get overlaid with holographic images, could come to the rescue.

"You're not placing this huge heavy thing over your eyes and that's all you're seeing," Levac said. "You're still present with the real world." Last summer we saw augmented reality in 2-D with Pokémon Go, but new wearable devices like Microsoft's forthcoming HoloLens and a display from the secretive startup Magic Leap promise to do the same in 3-D.

Levac said that augmented reality for rehab is still in the beginning stages, but pictures a proliferation of downloadable game apps. "I can really see that capitalizing on the motivating, engaging gaming aspect of VR but being more accessible and less intimidating," she said.

Measurable Results

"The good and bad of virtual reality is that it's fun," Stevenson Won said. "More people want to try it and we can leverage that fun for therapeutic purposes, but you want to figure out what the effects are."

Researchers and developers are beginning to bring a systematic, clinical approach to creating immersive therapies. Levac called this evidence-based game mechanics. "Instead of just putting chocolate over the broccoli — just gamifying everything — we're really starting to think, what do we know about what makes a good game, and reward, and interaction, and challenge?" she said.

When researchers studied children who were asked to do virtual reality rehabilitation every day for several weeks, they found that the novelty wore off. Levac envisions better ways to look at brain activity during tasks so researchers can quantitatively measure engagement. Once we understand how to keep boredom at bay over time, we can design stronger virtual reality treatments.

Stevenson Won expects that, in the future, more healthcare professionals will be able to see what virtual reality technology can do for their patients. "It's not a cure-all," she cautioned. "But it's just a great tool, especially when you compare it to more invasive treatments."

Originally published on Seeker.