Escape From Reality
by Annie Lu
Virtual reality, if loosely defined as a means of trying to convey a scene in which we are not truly present, can be seen in the form of panoramic paintings from centuries ago. “Virtual tourism” had been conceptualized as early as 1939 by William Gruber, who created a device (the View-Master) that allows the viewer to see two side-by-side images through a stereoscope, giving them a sense of three-dimensional depth. We probably scoff at that comparison, though. The geeky, tech-savvy vision we moderners may conjure up when confronted with the phrase “virtual reality” resembles something more like a set of fancy glasses, mounted to the front of one’s face. It’s supposed to convey all of the possible human senses, perhaps even go beyond that in its utter futuristic-ness. It should allow someone to perceive whole other worlds.
The truth of today’s virtual reality technology does certainly resemble that of science-fiction fantasies. VR still relies on a stereoscopic display (the two images on one screen at slightly different angles idea) to create immersion. Accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, and other fancy-sounding gadgets galore are all employed to allow the VR user to interact with the 3D space, simulating movement and other senses like touch, hearing, and possibly even smell (Mullis, 2016). All of this consolidates into an artificially created environment that can seem almost life-like.
So, what’s so important about this? (Apart from really really immersive videogames, of course.) There is such a thing as virtual reality therapy (VRT). VRT uses virtual reality to diagnose and treat medical patients with psychological conditions that may otherwise cause difficulties. A present example is its use in burn therapy: treatment for serious burns can be excruciating. Virtual reality, specifically in the form of SnowWorld, has been used to control pain by creating a cold, snowy environment that distracts the mind (Hoffman).
In a similar vein, psychological disorders regarding fear can also be mitigated. Patients with PTSD can confront painful reminders of their traumatic experiences without facing any “real” danger. This way, patients can hopefully be desensitized and trained not to panic, all in a safe, expert-controlled environment.
VRT can also be used in conjunction with brain-machine interfaces for limb rehabilitation and paralysis therapy. It allows patients, often post-stroke, to use their brain activity (which may no longer fully induce responses in their own bodies) to control an avatar in virtual reality, all the while receiving visual and tactile feedback. Potentially immobile patients can then practice moving what seems to be their own limbs, eventually helping them to regain their mobility (Ballester et al, 2015).
It would be nice to just take this technology for granted and look at all the benefits without addressing any concerns. The truth is, however, that while virtual reality therapy substantially reduces patients’ pain throughout traumatizing treatments or illnesses, it also carries with it potential side effects (as expected). This can include cybersickness, a type of motion sickness caused by the disjunction between movement in real life and movement as perceived in virtual reality; perceptual-motor disturbances; and lowered arousal, a result of overexposure to a different kind of reality that doesn’t necessarily behave in the same way. Nevertheless, virtual reality as a whole has a myriad of applications, even in medicine alone. It aids medical training by letting students perform “hands-on” procedures without the possibility of accidentally putting their human guinea pig at risk.
Virtual reality therapy can only be described as a revolutionary application of science-fiction-worthy technology to real-life problems. If we can use the concept of other worlds to treat psychological pains and disorders, one can only imagine what we might come up with next.