After decades of experimentation, virtual reality (VR) technologies that have the power to hack our senses of sight, hearing and feeling are beginning to transform many aspects of the way we live and work.
And while the gaming industry still dominates mainstream use of VR, applications of the technology are becoming an increasingly disruptive force for research and education.
With computer-generated virtual environments that can be used to change scale and perspective, evoke empathy, change behaviors, develop muscle memory, and more, VR lends itself to health and medical research into treatments and therapies that have the potential to improve people’s day-to-day lives.
VR for health and medicine
At the University of Melbourne’s Networked Society Institute (NSI), a small team has spent three years focusing on health and medical applications of VR technology.
Ken Clarke, Academic Specialist, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, explains that VR’s transformative ability makes it particularly well-suited for health research.
VR is very powerful because you can take people out of their everyday existence.
“VR is a flexible platform that gives us the ability to take people anywhere and to any time. It’s very powerful because you can take people out of their everyday existence, for example if they are socially isolated because they are quadriplegic or elderly.”
Virtual music therapy
The Music Therapy in Virtual Environments project has developed a proof-of-concept online virtual reality platform that brings quadriplegic patients together for virtual singing therapy sessions.
Previous clinical research demonstrated that group singing helped people with quadriplegia to breathe better, speak louder and make social connections. But many of the patients found it difficult to get to the rehab centre for sessions, which is where virtual reality and fast broadband come in.
VR is making it possible for participants to receive music therapy in their own homes. Patients wear a virtual reality headset and sing with therapist and researcher Dr Jeanette Tamplin in virtual settings such as a campfire, or on stage in front of an audience.
“We’ve had a really good reaction from quadriplegic clients we have trialled the VR therapy with,” Clarke said.
“On the whole they are very positive about escaping their home existence and joining a choir. As well as serving a rehabilitation purpose, it’s enjoyable and sociable and helps them live longer and more healthily.”
Tackling mental health
Another project is investigating whether virtual reality technologies can benefit young people suffering from a broad set of conditions including psychosis and depression.
Self-compassion has been shown to reduce psychopathology and increase wellbeing and resilience, and the Virtual Reality Therapy for Youth Mental Health project is currently pilot-testing a VR app that embodies this self-compassion approach to treatment.
“We’re currently testing a prototype and assessing its efficacy together with clinicians and young people who’ve experienced mental health issues,” Clarke said.
“We can use VR to enable participants to select negative thoughts, which are displayed in bubbles. By observing and engaging with their thoughts, the aim is to encourage mindfulness, which is rewarded as the bubbles literally fade-out.”
“It also helps expose people to situations they fear such as riding on public transport, exposing them to situations in a safe environment.”
Network and technology advances
In the early days of VR, latency caused by slow computer processors often induced nausea because of the lag between the user’s movement and what they saw on screen.
Today, although computer processors are more than capable of supporting VR locally, latency in the network can cause problems when attempting to link geographically separated users in a virtual world. Network latency can mean participants don’t see and hear the same thing at the same time, making real-time group singing impossible.
According to Clarke, you need at least 1 Mbps per participant for both the download and upload speed to get a good VR experience with low latency and high audio fidelity.
This means that a traditional household ADSL connection with a throttled 1Mbps upstream connection cannot support more than two users attempting to sing together online.
NSI take advantage of a dedicated gigabit connection to the AARNet network for developing and testing their VR technologies and carrying out user trials.
“AARNet connectivity allows us to pilot and further develop our VR world with users in diverse locations across Victoria from our location at the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus,” Clarke said.
“It also means we can connect with, and join together, quadriplegic users with NBN connections in the home or clinic.”
AARNet connectivity allows us to pilot and further develop our VR world with users in diverse locations across Victoria from our location at the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus.
“At the equipment level, everything’s much faster now, so the delays that used to be involved that caused nausea aren’t really a problem anymore – although it is still possible to design an experience that induces motion sickness,” Clarke said.
Lower-cost hardware (kit that used to cost over $250,000 now costs around $2,500) and improved graphics have also contributed to VR’s popularity among researchers. In fact, the Networked Society advocates the smartphone as a hardware platform.
“It’s one of the best as it slips into a relatively cheap plastic case with lenses attached to it that only costs a couple of hundred dollars,” Clarke said.
“The smartphone headset is very attractive for quadriplegic patients because they simply need to gaze at something in the scene for a couple of seconds to select it just like making a mouse-click. And the music therapist herself finds it very useful as she plays the guitar so she needs to have her hands free.”
But for other applications, headsets like the Oculus Rift in combination with a gaming PC provide the ability to interact more fully; to pick things up, more them around, walk around a room, jump, teleport and track your movements more realistically.
With affordable equipment, one of the main challenges the team face are around content creation. It’s a skill set that requires expertise in game engine technology; not traditionally an area that universities have focused on.
“We are trying to drive this area and develop a sustainable capability, with people working full-time as content creators and user interface designers,” Clarke said.
Augmenting teaching and learning
At the University of Melbourne, VR is also being used to support teaching and learning. One first year biology class is using VR to journey through the human body; shrunk down to molecule size, they can see viruses and cell biology visualised in 3D.
Ben Loveridge, Communications and Media Production Consultant, Learning Environments, says the experience is so well received that the students are now questioning why everything can’t be in VR.
“The students love it. A lot of them have never tried VR before, and they get a better perspective of what they’ve been looking at in textbooks and under a microscope in 2D. It gives them a new appreciation of how things are connected and the dynamics of the human body.”
It gives them a new appreciation of how things are connected and the dynamics of the human body.
Opportunities on the horizon
Although four VR-based research projects are already keeping the team occupied, the potential for new applications for VR at Melbourne University is huge.
Work has begun on a virtual heart model to train surgeons and cardiologists, who will be able to step inside the heart, move it around, speed up and slow down the heartbeat, and more.
Many of the University’s researchers also have datasets that are ripe for visualisation using VR; one Virtual Farm project has scanned an entire sheep and a lamb. Once built in VR, students will be able to interact with virtual CT scans.
In teaching, scaling is the next challenge; at the moment, VR can be experienced by a limited number of students at a time – impractical with cohorts of 2,500 students.
But headsets will get cheaper, lighter and easier to use, says Loveridge, which will help VR become a bigger part of teaching and learning at the University.
“We’ll see larger spaces with lots of people in at the same time working on similar projects, because tracking spaces will become much larger and VR will be common at “room-scale” rather than in small, enclosed spaces.”
Find out more about Virtual Reality in Health at NSI.
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