Virtual Reality in the Practice of Medicine – San Francisco, Oct. 4
Virtual reality as we know it now began its relatively quick creep toward its current form as a revolutionary tool for gaming and video back in the 1950s. Morton Heilig’s Sensorama, an arcade-style theatre cabinet with stereo speakers, a stereoscopic 3D display, fans, smell generators and a vibrating chair, was of course quite basic relative to what exists now in tools like the Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard. But the Sensorama had the same base objective – to fully immerse the individual using it in what they were seeing.
In 1960, Heilig released the Telesphere Mask – the first example of a head-mounted display, but it lacked the interactivity and motion tracking our new tools have today. In 1961, two Philco Corporation engineers developed the Headsight, an HMD with motion tracking; and through the rest of the 1960s, even more complex versions were released.
In 1987, Jaron Lanier, founder of the visual programming lab, coined the term “virtual reality,” giving a name to the new toys the gaming world – SEGA, Nintendo – started spitting out in the 1990s.
And now, concurrent with the development of things like Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR and more, the medical world’s got its hold.
At Health Technology Forum’s most recent San Francisco event on Oct. 4, six industry specialists came together to discuss virtual reality in the realm of medicine. In fact, that was the event’s title.
Moderator Michael Aratow, MD, Chief Medical Information Officer at San Mateo Medical Center, CEO and Co-Founder of VRecover and advisor to several digital startups, started out the networking and panel discussion event by giving an overview of VR in the medical field.
“In 2016, because we now have the software and hardware at consumer prices, this has been the year for experimentation,” Aratow said of the expansion of VR’s use to multiple industries. “It’s an exploding market now, predicted to be worth over $33 billion by 2020. ”
In introducing the panel, he took note of how it featured “the new, the old, the excellent and the best,” in that the panel featured five experts, some working in VR for decades.
Dr. Walter Greenleaf, PhD – the former director for the Mind Division at Stanford’s Center on Longevity and current Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Chief Science Officer at Pear Therapeutics, Cognitive Leap and Ellipsis Health, and Medical Director for AppliedVR – started his part of the talk with an overview of his experience in VR and where he thinks the industry is going.
“This is an area I’ve been involved in for almost 30 years,” Greenleaf said. “So you can’t imagine how exciting it is to see this technology and our use of this technology finally taking off. I think medicine is going to be the deepest market, in the long run, for VR technology. The enterprise is where all the action’s going to be.”
Some of Greenleaf’s research and work has been in incorporating VR into treatment of dementia and other age-related changes in cognition.
“One of the biggest parts to visual medicine is virtual reality,” Greenleaf said. “[Modules] can be a pretty profound experience, and that experience can be used to create a paradigm to change our behavior and our impressions of how to interact with other people. This is a very powerful tool.”
He also gave some insight into his latest project – one on stress in children who are going to have cardiac surgery. He helped create a module that captures the whole patient experience with a 360 Camera and allows the child to walk through the whole experience, from the front desk at their first check-in to the operating room, from the comfort of their home with VR.
“The idea is to inoculate them against the stress of the experience,” Greenleaf said.
The next panelist, Howard Rose, CEO and co-founder of Deep Stream VR, also introduced some of his work with VR, in the realm of pain relief.
“Pain relief is one of the best applications of VR,” Rose said. “It’s more than just a distraction.”
Rose’s company develops apps for other healthcare organizations, specifically to help patients with pain relief. They design-targeted applications for people with lifestyle behavior problems and developed VR programs to help with both acute and chronic pain.
Parvati Dev, PhD, president and CEO of Innovation in Learning, presented on behalf of SIMTABS, her most recent startup that focuses on using VR for healthcare training and education. Her company uses microlearning and modules to expedite learning processes.
“VR is a way to take something that’s very interesting, useful, that works, and makes it so immersive that people can’t help but learn,” Dev said.
Her applications facilitate doctors learning how to meet patients, collect information, diagnose multiple diagnoses and decide what to do for a patient. Then they must justify what they decide to do, as they would in a real hospital room.
VR allows Dev to develop protocol training tailored to the person learning.
James Blaha, CEO and founder of Vivid Vision, discussed the origins of his company and how they use VR to help primarily children with visual disorders. Born with a lazy eye and a crossed eye, Blaha went through all of the common treatments as a child, including “patching” – where a doctor patches up the child’s “good” eye and forces the lazy eye to get strong by making the brain depend on the weak eye.
“But the issue is that kids absolutely hate this,” Blaha said. “When I was a kid, my parents would tell me to wear the patch two to eight hours while at school. When I had it on, I couldn’t read the board, I couldn’t read my book or play sports. I would peak out the side of the patch and use my good eye anyway.”
Blaha said that new research has shown that there are other treatments for lazy eyes, which are a perceptual problem rather than a physical one, that needs to be treated in youth before the brain becomes less plastic.
“The brain takes the shortest route to good vision and starts ignoring the information coming from the weak eye,” Blaha said. “With VR, we’re teaching the brain how to use the two eyes together when normally there’s not a strong enough incentive for the brain to change how it’s learned to deal with information.”
In a unique take on the benefits of VR in healthcare, Kim Bullock, MD – and clinical associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, director of a neurobehavioral lab clinic at Stanford and founder of a new VR clinic and lab – brought up ways VR can be used in psychiatric treatment during her talk.
“I’ve found it quite effective and helpful,” Bullock said. “Especially in the way I can customize and get very specific with intervention. It’s been very helpful for treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, phobias, panic, generalized anxiety disorder. We also are using it with distraction for pain and distress tolerance. And I think down the line it’s going to be even more useful with skills training and learning.”
What Bullock is currently most interested in, she said, is the ability of VR to provide sensory and motor feedback. In her talk, she related this back to mirror therapy.
“Mirror therapy is used to amputate phantom limbs,” Bullock said. “You can reduce the pain from a phantom limb. The technology of VR is going to help with this because lack of movement actually reinforces symptoms of pain and the phantom limb. We can use VR now to change the visual feedback, create more mirror therapies.”
In the discussion section following the speakers’ introductions, panelists answered questions in such topics as[:] how VR can infiltrate the market and how it can be funded and clinically adopted, and the potential negatives to using VR in healthcare (as of yet, there are none).
One notion laid at the heart of each panelist’s answers – that nothing is more important than trying with these new technologies, and seeing how far we can take them. If VR can be used to help people, there’s no greater risk than not trying to engage with it.