For our Spring Mobile Health Meetup we decided to focus on the use of Virtual Reality (VR) technologies as therapies in healthcare. We were fortunate to be joined by Isabel Van De Keere, founder of Immersive Rehab, and VR pioneer Skip Rizzo, who – quite appropriately – was present through Google Hangouts.
Isabel kicked off the conversation with a personal account of her experiences going through physical rehabilitation following a serious accident 6 years ago. She spoke of her frustrations at the therapeutic tools available, and the difficulty in maintaining the motivation to follow repetitive exercise regimes.
She was inspired by this experience to attempt to improve the tools available for physiotherapists, and as a result founded Immersive Rehab. Here she works to design engaging and motivating VR therapeutic programmes for physio rehabilitation. These take advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity to overcome mobility difficulties such as a patient’s perceived inability to perform certain movements. Isabel describes it as: “it’s like the wifi connection between the mind and muscle has been lost and VR experiences are a tool to help reconnect.”
Skip Rizzo echoed Isabel’s findings in his own account of extensive work with VR in medical practice, from using VR to help soldiers with PTSD, to the development of AI agents within VR worlds. Much like in physical rehabilitation, Skip’s work with VR and mental health allows people to suspend their disbelief, allowing them to revisit traumatic experiences with the knowledge that they are in a safe and controllable environment. Crucially, the brain responds to stimuli in a similar way to how it would in real situations, despite the fact that the patient is aware that they are in a simulation.
As the conversation turned to the ethics of VR in health, the optimism of both speakers was infectious, along with their explanation of the issues still to be addressed. Contrary to criticisms of VR being an isolating activity, VR in therapy can be very social, even collaborative. Isabel spoke of her work with physiotherapists, in which the engagement between patient and therapist was aided by the motivating elements of the VR tool. Similarly, in treatment for PTSD, VR can allow a therapist to be present in the same environment as the patient, and in so doing gain a much clearer picture of the patient’s trauma.
Both Isabel and Skip feel that we are on the brink of widespread uptake and use of VR for a variety of medical applications. With the decline in equipment costs and mounting evidence of the impact of VR in projects such as Isabel’s and Skip’s, the gap between medical research and practice will start to close. Standalone headsets, haptic technology that bring a sense of touch to VR worlds, and responsive interactions through AI, will become increasingly common, opening up the possibilities for even more immersive experiences, and thus therapies.
But as VR becomes normalised, there will be a host of ethical and regulatory questions to solve. How should we handle patient data from VR therapies? Would harassment in a VR environment be treated the same as harassment in the real world? Will actions in a VR world have legal consequences in the real world? As with any potentially transformative technology the possibilities for positive and negative impacts will make ethics a vital component in conversations about the future of VR.
If you’d like to watch the conversation from start to finish, make sure to check out the video of the event below.
Finally a big thank you to Isabel and Skip for sharing their experiences and insights on a fascinating topic, and to the audience for coming over to our studios and bringing such thoughtful questions to the discussion.
We look forward to seeing you at the next Mobile Health Meetup!