Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 9 (September 2000)

Virtual Healing

Though virtual reality was a media darling a decade ago, its popularity went into a tailspin when analysts got fed up waiting for the technology to deliver on the very hype they had created. Indeed, the all-time low point occurred a few years ago when Newsweek, referring to the nausea VR can induce, called it the most “barfogenic” invention since the Tilt-A-Wheel

But VR is enjoying a resurgence. In his newly released market study, "The Market for Visual Simulation/Virtual Reality Systems," Ben Delaney of CyberEdge Information Services concludes that "Though no longer in the spotlight of media hype, or perhaps because of that," the VizSim business-now estimated at $24 billion-grew 50 percent last year and will continue at that clip for the foreseeable future.

What's behind the rebirth? Clearly, VR technology is improving-though it can still be disorienting-and its price is steadily falling. But perhaps the biggest reason for the renewed acceptance is that developers are proving that the technology is capable of tackling serious problems, particularly those that have eluded traditional solutions.

One field where VR has achieved stunning success is psychological therapy. In fact, at the recent Siggraph conference, researchers demonstrated how VR is helping people deal with a host of intractable conditions, including the following:

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: To help Vietnam vets suffering from the psychological, behavioral, and physical symptoms associated with PTSD, Larry Hodges, a VR researcher at Georgia Tech, devised immersive simulations of Vietnam battle scenes so patients can relive the events and reprocess their memories of the outcomes. Patients are gradually exposed to virtual battlefield situations over several sessions. In a helicopter landing-zone scenario, for example, the simulation begins quietly, but in the end "all hell breaks loose," Hodges says. Helicopters zoom in. Gunfire erupts. Mortars explode. Wearing a head-mounted display, the patient describes the action-as well as other images triggered from memory that weren't in the program-while working through the trauma. All of the patients showed significant improvement. "Nothing else worked," notes Hodges. "After 30 years, any progress is news."
  • Acute Pain: To help burn victims withstand pain during wound-dressing changes, Hunter Hoffman, a researcher at the University of Washington, created an immersive 3D game called Snow World to distract patients during the procedure. The program challenges users to fly through an icy river canyon and blast snowmen from the surrounding walls. "Pain demands constant attention," says Hoffman. Therefore, by spending less time concentrating on their pain, patients are able to suppress it. Other pain control methods-including powerful opiate drugs-proved ineffective.

These and similar demonstrations at Siggraph-which illustrate how VR is helping people with other forms of chronic and severe pain, as well as brain injuries, phobias, attention deficit disorders, even autism-prove that the technology, though still limited, is certainly "good enough" to create convincing virtual environments. They also show that when developers build systems that can make a critical difference in people's lives, users will come and markets will follow.

Phil LoPiccolo: Editor-in-Chief