By Weiyu Feng, MEng ’22 (EECS)This op-ed is part of a series from E295: Communications for Engineering Leaders. In this course, Master of Engineering students were challenged to communicate a topic they found interesting to a broad audience of technical and non-technical readers. As an opinion piece, the views shared here are neither an expression of nor endorsed by UC Berkeley or the Fung Institute. Have you ever imagined one day simply playing video games could cure diseases? Well, it is happening. The applications of Virtual Reality (VR) video games are surging in the healthcare field, bringing brand-new opportunities for innovative treatments and therapies. With the careful design and use of VR video games, major tasks faced by healthcare practitioners such as motor rehabilitation, pain relief, and psychological phobias therapy could be effectively accomplished.
VR games for physical rehabilitationOne of the main aims of VR video games is to facilitate patients’ rehabilitation process. For physical rehabilitations, computer assisted virtual rehabilitation environments and gamification mechanics enable patients to actively perform desired exercises with more fun through VR games compared with traditional methods, leading to a faster rehabilitation process and better performance. Many studies have showed the improvement of patients’ balance, endurance, dexterity, speed, and range of motion after exercising in VR games. For instance, Alicia Cuesta-Gómez recently conducted a comprehensive analysis of using VR game in upper limb rehabilitation and concluded that such an approach not only demonstrated significant improvements for dexterity and coordination in patients, but also resulted in high patients’ satisfactions.
VR games for mental rehabilitationIn addition to physical rehabilitations, mental rehabilitations could benefit from the narrative nature of VR video games. By virtually reconstructing selected scenes of certain phobias and manually controlling the environments, doctors could create effective psychotherapies to treat various phobias that traditional treatments can hardly deal with. For example, Vida Kabiri Rahani and his team developed a VR game “Claustrophobia Game” for treatment of claustrophobia. After performing several rounds of user tests, the team analyzed the collected statistical data, and the results demonstrated a significant anxiety decrease of users after they played the game. In addition to phobias, other psychological diseases such as post-traumatic stress disorders, eating disorders, and anxiety disorders could also be effectively treated by using similar methodologies.
VR game for pain reliefBesides facilitating rehabilitation, VR video games could be used as an effective way to relieve pain of patients who suffer from severe burns, chronic pain, and recovery treatment. A previous study conducted by scholars at University of Washington revealed that opioids, morphine-like chemicals widely used as pain relievers, was obvious insufficient for reducing the pain of patients suffering from burns during their wound care process. Besides, an overdose or long-term use of opioids may cause severe addiction and several other side-effects. Thus, instead of opioids VR video games may provide a more effective and safer pain relief therapy for patients. Many research and clinical results have suggested that through various virtual reality simulators and applications, doctors could effectively reduce the amount of pain patients feel and consequently decrease their consumption of opioids. “Snow World,” a VR simulator developed at University of Washington HIT Lab, was the first virtual reality game designed for burn patients. As pain perception has a strong psychological component and requires attention, an immersive virtual reality game would reduce the pain from both sides. On the one hand, a virtual environment featuring “cold” would create illusions for patients. On the other hand, the gamification mechanics, which was shooting in this case, distracted patients’ attention from processing pain signal.
Limitations of applying VR game in clinicalInevitably, applying VR video games in clinical settings faces various challenges. Recently, some researchers identified these challenges. One of the major challenges is theoretical immaturity. As a novel therapy approach, VR games lack solid theory foundations. Although there are many positive results of applying VR games in clinical settings, researchers still struggle with proposing or proving the mechanics behind the phenomenon, making VR games as an immature therapy that may contain many unknown side effects. Another challenge identified is the lack of technical standards in the current industry. With no agreement on technical standard, the quality and effectiveness of VR game therapy could be a big concern. Other challenges include costs, separating effects of media versus medium, and practical in vivo issues. People are constantly finding new therapies that could bring more benefits toward patients. VR is just one of them. Although researchers have demonstrated various positive effects, VR game as a novel therapy still has a long way to go; but with the diligent efforts of researchers from all over the world, we could possibly see a beautiful future where patients get treated in a fun but effective way.
“Although researchers have demonstrated various positive effects, VR game as a novel therapy still has a long way to go; but with the diligent efforts of researchers from all over the world, we could possibly see a beautiful future where patients get treated in a fun but effective way.”
The future of VR gameDespite all limitations and obstacles, VR games see a very promising future in many fields. By virtue of immersive technology, VR games transcend beyond games. With more explorations, VR games could bring changes to a broad scope of healthcare fields including but not limited to physical and mental rehabilitation, 3D environment simulations, and surgical training systems. By keeping an open mind toward VR games, we shall see how VR games shape the future of healthcare together. Connect with Weiyu Feng.
- Minhua Ma School of Computing and Information Engineering, et al. “Adaptive Virtual Reality Games for Rehabilitation of Motor Disorders.” Adaptive Virtual Reality Games for Rehabilitation of Motor Disorders | Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Universal Access in Human-Computer Interaction: Ambient Interaction, 1 July 2007, https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.5555/1763296.1763373.
- Cuesta-Gómez, Alicia, et al. “Effects of Virtual Reality Associated with Serious Games for Upper Limb Rehabilitation in Patients with Multiple Sclerosis: Randomized Controlled Trial.” Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation, BioMed Central, 13 July 2020, https://jneuroengrehab.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12984-020-00718-x.
- Rahani, Vida Kabiri, et al. “Claustrophobia Game: Design and Development of a New Virtual Reality Game for Treatment of Claustrophobia.” Journal of Medical Signals and Sensors, Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6293643/.
- UW Human Photonics Lab. “Virtual Reality Pain Reduction.”, https://depts.washington.edu/hplab/research/virtual-reality/.
- I. Bratosin, I. Păvăloiu, et al. “Pain Relief using Virtual Reality,” 2019 11th International Conference on Electronics, Computers and Artificial Intelligence (ECAI), 2019, pp. 1–4, doi: 10.1109/ECAI46879.2019.9041996.
- Garrett, Bernie, et al. “Virtual Reality Clinical Research: Promises and Challenges.” JMIR Serious Games, JMIR Publications, 17 Oct. 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6231864/.
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