When Oculus almost single-handedly revived the idea of virtual reality from its 1990s vaporware grave, it chose the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2012 as the place to unveil the first public prototype of the Rift headset. The choice of a gaming convention isn’t too surprising given that the gaming industry has been the fastest and most eager to exploit potential applications for VR. Gaming has already demanded most of the attention and investment in the second VR boom that Oculus has unleashed.
But just as the Rift itself is a result of what Oculus calls a “peace dividend from the smartphone wars,” other areas are benefiting from the gaming-driven growth of virtual reality. Creators around the world are looking beyond entertainment and adapting head-mounted displays for everything from psychotherapy, disability education and space exploration to virtual luxury car test drives, virtual travel and even VR movies. The widely held notion of “gaming on the holodeck” may spur much of the interest in virtual reality, but the technology’s non-gaming applications could be just as exciting in the long run.
Announcing his company’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus earlier this year, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg noted that “while applications for virtual reality technology outside of gaming are in their infancy, several industries are already experimenting with the technology.” However, some of those industries have been experimenting for decades. Even during virtual reality’s first moment in the spotlight in the 1990s, some people were exploring how the primitive VR systems of the time could be used for research and healing.
Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo of the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California said he was inspired to seek digital solutions for his brain-injured rehabilitation patients in the early 1990s when he noticed that a patient who was struggling to stay motivated for therapy had no trouble getting engrossed in a Game Boy copy of Tetris during breaks. Over the next few years, Rizzo reached out to colleagues in the computer science field to see if therapeutic training in virtual reality simulations could lead to improvements in real-world skills. Rizzo has now spent nearly two decades researching to prove that this is indeed the case.
The virtual reality technology available when Rizzo embarked on this path was expensive and, of course, unconvincing. Rizzo recalls the first virtual reality system he used, an Immersadesk 3D projection system that cost $125,000. The first head-mounted displays in those early days cost $10,000, had a resolution of 640 x 480, and required an expensive SGI workstation to handle rough head tracking and simulation-level 3D modeling.
Surprisingly, even these early attempts at virtual reality proved “real” enough to provide engaging therapeutic environments for people suffering from PTSD and other conditions. Rizzo recalls giving Vietnam veterans a “primitive” Virtual Vietnam program in 1998, with very rough approximations of foliage, helicopters, and the like. “When they went through it and came out, I said, ‘Bill, what did you see there?'” Rizzo recalled. “And he’d go, ‘Oh, well, there was a paddy field and Viet Cong coming out of the jungle and there was a water buffalo.’ Well, none of that was in the simulation… they filled in the gaps with their own memories. You can provide just enough for people to react to it as if it were real.”
Even with current technology, a virtual reality version of a battlefield will not be as authentic as real-world immersion therapy. Yet VR immersion therapy has been shown to be just as effective as “en vivo” real-world immersion therapy in treating everything from common phobias to deep-seated anxiety. Dr. Marat Zanov, a clinical psychologist and director of education at VR therapy company Virtually Better, points to hundreds of clinical studies that have shown that virtual therapy is “at least as effective as a real approach.”
VR therapy is also often much more convenient and/or less expensive than comparable exposure therapy in the real world. “Think of our PTSD veterans,” Zanov said. “We can’t really take them back to Afghanistan or Iraq and put them in a firefight. You used to use exposure imaging, having the veteran recreate the traumatic event in their memory as if it were happening right now. That’s nice and nice, but it takes a lot of effort from the psychotherapist and some patients have problems with the imagination… With a virtual environment we really bring them to that trauma a little faster.”
Zanov also pointed to the economic benefits of treating patients with a fear of flying, for example. Previously, exposure therapy for such a patient could require buying two round-trip tickets — one for the patient, one for the clinician — for perhaps five to 10 expensive trips. “If you only use the virtual environment, it will cost you nothing.”
While researchers have been proving the clinical value of virtual immersion therapy for decades, the new wave of virtual reality technology has the potential to move the concept from the realm of academic research to widespread acceptance among physicians and patients.
“What’s happening in the world today is we’re cutting costs to make it affordable for all therapists,” said Michael Jacobson, CEO of Virtually Better. “Until last year it was more of a research tool than something available to practicing clinicians. It wasn’t convenient; it was not easy to use. Providing a system for the grassroots was expensive. Just the mention of the Oculus has changed the world, so there are tons of ways to offer virtual worlds at much more effective prices than they were 15 years ago. Now we’re seeing huge questions about fielding and a lot of people fielding them. People have studied it, looked at it, but now they will be able to deliver it.”
Rizzo agrees that with the rise of Oculus and other relatively inexpensive, high-end headsets, “the technology has caught up with the vision” for VR therapy. Rizzo recalls trying to push a clinically proven VR program to treat attention deficit disorder in 2004. “But the psychologists were too uptight about it,” he said. “They thought it was complicated. They thought it wouldn’t work. They didn’t understand. They didn’t want to spend $2,000.”
When Rizzo presents similar virtual therapies at psychology conferences today, there’s no other way. “I don’t have to spend half my speech up front explaining what virtual reality is and convincing people that it’s not science fiction, that it really is a viable technology that offers significant advantages over standard media delivery systems. . ” he said. “People get it right out of the gate. They are aware of it.”