Medical Applications for Virtual Reality

July 17, 2017

 

Last time I checked in on the Virtual Reality space I was looking at VR projects that were creating a positive impact on the world, and I found no shortage of material. One thing I was intrigued by was the sheer number of medical projects already underway, so I did some investigation. As it turns out, the VR/AR market is substantial, valued at USD 568.7 million in 2016 and projected to grow at a CAGR of 29.1% by 2025. These are big numbers! 

The strength of this expanding market is built on a foundation of concepts paving the way towards a future where technology is increasingly intrinsic to the medical profession, particularly when it comes to rehabilitative applications. Check out a few of the highlights below: 

VR for Fibromyalgia Rehabilitation
Fibromyalgia (FM) is a chronic disorder that causes significant discomfort, fatigue, balance issues, and mental health issues in its sufferers, requiring regular physical exercise and muscular stimulation to make the condition livable. This prescription is often difficult for FM patients to adhere to, as the discomfort affects sleep, mood, and memory, which is a decidedly demotivating cocktail of interference when it comes to a regular exercise schedule. 

In a recent study, VR was found to be an effective intervention for this population. The study was undertaken with the theory that the Virtual Reality experience would engage the patients and keep them sufficiently distracted from the pain that can dampen their participation in traditional exercise regimes. Across three randomized groups, patients who used Virtual Reality interventions saw a 10.61% improvement in the time it took to complete an exercise routine, and a 23.58% improvement in balance, statistically significant impacts that indicate a bright future where VR and FM rehabilitation are concerned. 

Virtual Restorative Environments
At the University of Birmingham, Professor Bob Stone and his Human Interface Technologies Team are studying the potential of virtual restorative environments (VREs), which are “the recreation of locations and scenes that, by virtue of their natural beauty and peacefulness, may significantly help to reduce the body’s reactivity to stress and restore cognitive or attentional capacities.” Two trials are currently underway testing this VR use case, which is currently screen-based but could easily translate to immersive headset-based VR. The experience is specifically modeled after Wembury beach in Devon, England, and has been dubbed Virtual Wembury by Professor Stone and his team. The first trial of this VRE is intended to help patients recovering from intensive gastrointestinal surgery - patients in the VRE are in control of a catapult, and can sink offshore ships by adopting the proper breathing rhythm and breathing into a digital spirometer. This micro-gameplay loop provides adequate distraction and motivation beyond the simple act of breathing. 

The second trial combines the VRE with an in-bed cycling device (similar to a recumbent bicycle) called the MOTOmed, and helps patients to recover from Intensive Care Acquired Weakness, wherein patients’ muscles are progressively weakened by a prolonged stay in a hospital bed. By providing a deeper sense of purpose and place, the VRE motivates players to spend more time in the game, and has the additional advantage of providing metrical analysis of the actions undertaken by the patient. As an added bonus, each day patients compete against a ghost avatar of their previous session, providing a sense of progress and accomplishment. 

VR Rehabilitation Goes Mainstream
There’s tons of academic research projects around the medical uses of VR, but up until recently it’s been more difficult to find examples of ready-for-the-market solutions. Enter SaeboVR, a virtual reality-based activities of daily living (ADL) rehabilitation system. The system is intended to provide rehabilitation patients with meaningful, engaging, and motivating activities that allow them to rehabilitate their neurological and cognitive capacities. Just this month, Saebo announced that their SaeboVR solution received official FDA approval. This is a huge deal - FDA approval is a major gateway for healthcare solutions transitioning from the theoretical to the practical, and the example of SaeboVR shows that government agencies are signalling their receptiveness to more solutions that leverage the medium of virtual reality. 

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