How VR-headsets are used in Medicine

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Dozens of companies put on the market VR-headsets and VR-glasses for reasonable money. The most notable developments in this area are related to video games, but Oculus Rift, Gear VR and analogues aren’t suitable just for entertainment. “A Digital Frame” is going to tell you how virtual reality is used by physicians.


The first serious developments in the field of virtual reality began in the 1960s. In the 1990s Sega, Nintendo and other companies released the first consumer models of VR helmets. Those were so cumbersome, and the computing power of the consoles was so weak that the technology didn’t get commercial success, and everybody forgot about it for a while. Industry remembered about them only in 2010 with the announcement of Oculus VR, after which Samsung, Sony, HTC joined the competitive race. Recently, appeared special controllers, gloves, weapons (for playing shooters), even special treadmills with a variable coefficient of resistance. Analysts vied with each other to predict how VR will conquer the world of entertainment. However, already these technologies are used not only for fun.

Therapy after strokes

People who have suffered a stroke are often partially paralyzed, and their recovery can take years. Doctors come up with all the new ways of rehabilitation, including use of virtual reality. For example, in the Spanish University Pompeu Fabra physicians apply a simple application, showing the patient on the screen outstretched hands, which he can control with sensors as if they were his limbs. Scientists secretly set up the system so that virtual hands move faster and more accurately than own limbs. After a ten-minute session, the patients felt more confident and began to use the paralyzed hand as often as healthy people, so that their recovery went faster.

In an article published in the European Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine, it is said that of 37 studies on topic 12 showed significant progress after applying virtual reality in comparison to conventional procedures. In 8 studies, it is stated that such therapy is very helpful for patients in everyday tasks. Whether such programs are good for other things and recovery of cognitive functions is yet to be learned, but new methods are already on the way.

Training of surgeons and remote surgery

All surgeons have to start with something, but what patient will want to deal with a beginner surgeon? Virtual reality glasses help to partially solve the problem. In Canada, a simulator for neurosurgeons NeuroVR was designed, which is a device with a screen, manipulators, feedback and 30 training programs. The doctor sees a three-dimensional image of the brain and can perform surgery on it using a variety of instruments.

The company Medical Realities also deals with educational applications, but uses household equipment. This spring, one of its founders Dr. Shafi Ahmed removed the intestinal tumor in the Royal Hospital of London: the operation was recorded on a panoramic camera and broadcasted to the Internet – doctors from all over the world could follow the process in full detail.

Broadcast with virtual reality allows connection to an operation and a more experienced surgeon can come to the aid of a beginner. And it does not matter if the doctor is in another part of the world – he can remotely control the mechanical arm, seeing the patient in front of him on the surgical table.

Therapy of mental disorders


Diagnostic lists are filled with mental disorders, the nature of which is not completely clear, and the therapy is not effective enough. For 20 years specialists have been trying to treat them, including with the help of virtual reality, especially when it comes to anxiety, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Albert Rizzo of the University of Southern California and engineers at Virtually Better invented the Bravemind device to treat patients with PTSD. It is based on so-called exposure therapy – an old and proven method, when a patient is shown a frightening situation in controlled and safe conditions. The soldier puts on the glasses of virtual reality and feels like if returning to the war: Rizzo worked all the way up to the smell of gunpowder. According to the researcher, thanks to the interactivity, his program often helps where conventional therapy doesn’t work.

Rizzo has other simulators, for example, an interview simulator for high-performance autists and a virtual friend, who can listen to everything you have to say. Other developers are engaged in applications against phobias, to relieve stress and meditation, to treat depression and even nicotine and heroin addictions.

Treatment of eye diseases


Modern virtual reality glasses are binocular, that is, they show individual images for each eye that are connected by the brain. Once, the programmer James Blaha guessed that thanks to this principle, you can treat amblyopia (“lazy eye”). Blaha has a strabismus, which is why his brain stopped treating the signals from his left eye as a child. The doctors did not give him a chance, so he decided to help himself. At first, Blaha came up with an installation of two projectors and glasses with polarized filters inclined at an angle, but the components would be too expensive. Soon, a Oculus Rift prototype appeared, and the developer began to create the game Diplopia (later he renamed it Vivid Vision). In essence it’s simple: you play a kind of arkanoid, while the picture for a healthy eye is darkened in such a way that the eye with poor eyesight has to adjust and act more actively. The game is already used in hospitals, and the home beta will be released before the end of the year. Blaha says that he began to see better, but Vivid Vision still needs clinical tests.

Another 4 ways to apply virtual reality in medicine


Creating a comfortable environment for patients

Some patients have to lie in the hospital for months. This is tiring in itself, but if the ward is not in the best hospital, but in the traumatology department of the country clinic, then the days pass painfully long. Virtual reality will allow you to travel anywhere, for example, to your room, where a panoramic camera with an Internet connection is turned on.


Detailed diagnostics

Modern diagnostic methods like fMRI can produce a three-dimensional image of organs, but physicians usually have to deal with separate projections on flat screens. In the glasses of virtual reality, the 3D model of the problematic organ or tissues can be viewed from all sides and in all details.


Treatment of phantom pains

In the sixth season of “Doctor House” the main character rescued a grouchy neighbor from phantom pains with the help of optical illusion: thanks to a mirror, he saw his hand in place of the lost one and was able to “unclench” it by deceiving the brain. Approximately the same, only with a variety of scenarios, can be done with the help of virtual reality.


Exercise of empathy

Some young people, including doctors, can not establish contact with the older generation: they are irritated because of slowness, poor vision and hearing. VR-simulators like We Are Alfred should help to imagine what life is like for a 74-year-old man with an incurable disease, poorly controlled limbs and dark spots in front of his eyes.

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