What can Virtual Reality do?

Aisha Al Janabi explores the potential of new technology on block; virtual reality.

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Virtual Reality is one of the most disrupting new technologies.

In recent years, virtual reality has been developed by companies such as Google releasing the Google Cardboard headset in 2014. Although virtual reality headsets are heavily associated with video gaming due to the companies that developed them, scientists are increasingly exploring other applications such as medicine. Virtual reality is used in several ways within this context. Firstly, it is beginning to be used as a training tool for surgeons as it enables mistakes to be made, and more practice to be done with fewer consequences. It is also used to aid patients by transporting them away from the hospital bed in which they are confined, and be submerged in a completely different location effortlessly.

Virtual reality is defined as a computer-generated 3D environment that can be interacted with in real time and that seeks to accomplish a completely different reality. This is often confused with augmented reality, i.e., enhancing our view of the world by adding computer generated aspects, such as Pokémon Go which places images to our real-life surroundings.

The progress made by the headsets includes both the algorithms of the programs used to produce a more realistic experience, and the physical device itself to become more portable. The main development within virtual reality has been the visual aspect which involves a stereoscopic display, meaning there are two screens at slightly different angles, replicating how our eyes see. In addition to this,objects that appear to be at a greater distance move slower, known as parallax display, furthering the realness of the image. Before the technology could be used successfully, scientists had to overcome technological difficulties as they caused motion sickness,now named ‘cyber sickness.’ This included ensuring that the frame rate,field of view and latency were similar to how our eyes function. The frame rate is how many images per second are produced; the Oculus Rif has 90 frames per second (FPS), significantly higher than that of TV which I around 30 FPS. The field of view, the least significant aspect, is how much of the world around us can be seen. Without a person moving their head we can see roughly 180° around us,while the Google Cardboard can show 90° and the Oculus Rif shows around 120°. Finally, latency is the delay of transfer of data after an instruction, i.e. the time between turning your head and the scene changing as a response, hence potentially causing the virtual reality to lag. Another sense that virtual reality has developed is sound, the headsets used often have speakers at different angles to make sounds appear to be coming from various locations, giving the impression of the user in a 3-dimensional world.

Virtual reality can fulfill several roles in training new medics. Firstly, Medical Realities, is an innovative company that records 360° videos of surgeries, enabling students to be immersed in the environment and learn from professionals. Medical Realities live streams operations, most recently diagnostic laparoscopy on the 6th of February 2017, and continues to add new content. The immersive technology benefits students mentally as it prepares them for events within the operating theatre, and helps them get a sense of what to expect. Furthermore, this reduces logistical difficulties as a student simply needs a headset, which is rapidly becoming more affordable. In April 2016, Dr. Shaf Ahmed streamed removing a tumour to 5,000 people in 14 countries showing how this can help democratise medical teachings to some extent. Virtual reality means that specialists in different fields of medicines can become more accessible to a wider group of students, so more are able to benefit from their expertise. Life-like simulations have also been produced to minimise the use of cadavers in learning. Although cadavers have been necessary in the past to practise surgery, they do have limitations, such as the lack of blood if a vessel is cut. If these are used alongside virtual reality,a more effective teaching system can be formed. In virtual reality, a customizable mannequin with sensors that interfaces with the headset causes a visual response in the video. As the cost of the technology continues to decrease, it is more cost effective as less waste is produced and the headsets can be used by several students.

Virtual reality can be provided to patients in two ways. Currently, experiments are being done on its use as an alternative to pain killers. Secondly, it is being experimented with to reduce anxiety surrounding operations and procedures. One example of this is when young children are required to go through an MRI scan. The procedure itself is painless, but can cause feelings of claustrophobia and anxiety due to the noises and length of time being still in a tube. Virtual reality is used to give patients the experience of an MRI scan beforehand to better prepare them for it. This has shown that patients are more relaxed during an MRI and so are able to stay still, resulting in a clearer scan.

When used as a painkiller, it is done so through manipulating the human mind – we are aware that the more focused one is on pain, the more it is felt. So, by overloading the senses with different inputs, the patient can become less aware of pain. One company that is developing such software is AppliedVR , including “Snow World,”created in 2003, to help burn victims. In this alternate icy world, snowballs are being thrown along with penguins, among other animals to create an engaging scene. This is often used while a physiotherapist moves the patient’s limbs as necessary or reapplies bandages, while the game causes a distraction. It has shown that patients underestimate the time they are in therapy for, as they are being engaged and are not focusing on the procedures. This can reduce anxiety around attending appointments because there is something other than the inevitable discomfort experienced during the therapy. AppliedVR mainly designs ‘worlds’ for a seated experience and does not involve any part of the body other than the head, making this suitable for hospital use. Unlike drugs,patients do not appear to build a tolerance to the benefits and continue to aid recovery.

Before hospitals make a greater investment in virtual reality, it does need to be improved and developed for it to be successfully applied on a larger scale. Cost needs to be lowered along with more programs being produced for specific uses. The future of virtual reality surely looks to be promising, and in a sense out of this world.

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