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How will Oculus Rift affect our health?

May 20, 2014

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Since Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR in March, many of us have been wondering what the future holds for the world of virtual reality. Will the technology be quietly relegated to the realm of gamers, software developers and tech enthusiasts or could Oculus Rift and its competitors soon begin to penetrate our everyday lives? The applications for the sci-fi-esque device are perhaps broader than what television portrayals of virtual reality have led us to believe.

For example, Oculus Rift could have huge implications in the field of healthcare. In a post on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg explained his vision for Oculus Rift goes beyond fun and games; “But this is just the start. After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home.” Since the transition from desktop computers to mobile devices, Zuckerberg sees virtual reality as the next phase.

While some may be concerned about the negative impact of Oculus Rift on our health, proponents of the device claim the uptake of virtual reality could offer significant benefits to our wellbeing, improve access to healthcare and even raise standards of care.

1. Mental Health

The immersive element of Oculus Rift makes it a perfect tool to alter perceptions in the long term. Virtual Reality is already in use by the US military as a way to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Researcher Albert Rizzo of the University of California’s Institute for Creative Technologies developed ‘Virtual Iraq’ in 2005 to help soldiers recover from their ordeals, with promising results.

Since then, virtual reality technology has progressed rapidly and has also become much more affordable. In an interview with online tech magazine, The Verge, Rizzo has said that virtual reality therapy or VRT through Oculus Rift could revolutionise the way we approach mental health problems. “This has the capacity to turn virtual reality [therapy] into a mass market treatment…I’m sure anyone doing this kind of clinical work will agree with me.”

In addition to PTSD, VRT could find its way into treatment plans for autism, addiction, depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, phobias and personality disorders. Virtual Reality will allow patients to immerse themselves in a variety of situations in order to overcome their problems in a controlled environment, which they can reflect on afterwards with a mental health professional.

Founder of PsyTech LLC, Farnando Tarnogol has been working on the Anxiety Management Virtual Reality Platform. Tarnogol has said “Anxiety disorders and phobias are a real problem that affects one in 60 people in the US. Studies have proved that virtual reality therapy can be as effective as in-vivo exposure – being exposed to real heights, for instance – or imaginary exposure.”

oculus-rift-2While virtual reality has been shown to help treat mental health issues, the device could just as easily create them. Video games have long been blamed for increasingly violent behaviour in schools, for example. Overly graphic games could even be traumatic themselves, in which case, will the prescribed cure be more virtual reality?

Then again, the aim of some VT software may be to make people feel somewhat traumatised, for example when raising awareness of human rights issues or imploring criminals to understand the psychological impact of their actions. The potential uses for VRT could become very disturbing indeed, perhaps reminiscent of the ‘Ludovico technique’ in the film A Clockwork Orange.

2.    Communication and Education

Currently, the closest most of us have come to face-to-face communication in the virtual world is via video calling services such as Skype. Oculus Rift, however, promises to make interacting with our peers feel as realistic as if we were there in the flesh.

One of the examples Mark Zuckerberg used to show the diverse applications of Oculus Rift was sitting in the doctor’s chair, having a conversation. Virtual reality headsets could become the ultimate Telehealth device by providing patients the same level of support as attending a doctor’s appointment in person and therefore easing the burden on heath services.

 

oculus-rift-3Similarly, Oculus Rift could make for easier communication between medical professionals and allow students to virtually attend lectures and seminars, ask questions and feel completely immersed without any distractions. A medical student will be able to see an operation performed and experience first hand the high-pressure environment of an operating theatre.

Virtual Reality headsets could also transform the lives of the elderly, people with limited mobility and those who are unable to experience the world in the way they would like. For example, someone usually confined to their home would be able to virtually visit friends around the world, forgetting for a moment they are still sat in their own living room.

3.    Physical Health

There are numerous physical health concerns surrounding virtual reality, many of them dependent on how advanced the technology is, what the virtual reality scenario is and acclimatisation to the device.  For example, a fast paced shooting game that is poorly configured and played for five hours straight by a virtual reality virgin is likely to make the player feel more than a little queasy.

One thing is for certain, if virtual reality is to make a successful transition to the mass market, it probably shouldn’t be seen as a sure-fire way to induce vomiting. Oculus Rift still has some way to go in this respect.

So far, many pioneers of Oculus Rift have reported headaches and nausea after using the device. Quick, spinning movements and head jerks seem to have a particularly adverse affect on the user.

 

oculus-4Feelings of disorientation could last for hours or even days after a gaming session and pose a significant risk to everyday activities such as driving. While wearing Oculus Rift, the visual signals received are often at odds with other signals. For example, the user may see and hear they are accelerating or turning, but not actually feel it. The body eventually adjusts to this so when driving in reality the movements seem very exaggerated. Eventually, users may be able to flip easily between reality and virtual reality but it is easy to see how unpleasant side effects of excessive use could result in a serious accident.

Another key concern involves Oculus Rift’s affect on our eyesight. The evidence suggests, however, that looking through the device is actually better for us than looking at a screen on a computer or mobile device. Our eyes have evolved to look off to the horizon, so activities that involve staring at something as close proximity may result in eyestrain. With Oculus Rift, the eyes are not converging at all and the user sees things at a distance, in a more natural way.

The Occulus VR Knowledge Base states “The Oculus Rift causes very little eye strain, particularly compared to other standard displays or headmounts. Normally, when you take a break from using a monitor or TV, the idea is to give your eyes a chance to focus and converge on a distant plane. This is a natural position of rest for your eyes. With the Oculus Rift, your eyes are actually focused and converged in the distance at all times. It’s a pretty neat optical feature.”

By Sarah Ruscoe

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