The rise of virtual reality

While VR might seem the type of technology that would appeal only to diehard gamers or children, the truth is that it is being implemented in a number of different ways that might surprise the public. It has been a little slow to catch on, but experts predict that VR will start to appear in a number of industries and that the technology could even radically change the medical field.

As populations age and our societies find new ways to help a growing number of elderly people, technology has been the solution many companies have turned to. A shortage of physicians means that machines are likely to pick up some of the slack—and virtual reality seems to be one way where this is being realized.

“Healthcare in the U.S. is facing a lot of uncertainty due to changing policies and an aging demographic…luckily, advances in technologies such as virtual reality, wearable devices, and 5G may provide both an affordable alternative and improved quality of life,” writes Jay Samit for Fortune.

Where VR has made large strides has been the mental health sector, and it has been used for both doctors and patients to help diagnose and understand problems such as depression, bipolar disorder, and severe migraines. For those who have never experienced these afflictions, VR has offered a way for wearers to live through some of the symptoms of these diseases and find new ways to cure them or make them easier to deal with on a daily basis.

The drug Excedrin did just this through the creation of a VR experience depicting the realities of migraines. Friends and families of migraine-sufferers were able to deal with some of the neurological symptoms through the provided headset. The experience was created in order to increase awareness for those who might not know how difficult it can be to live through these severe headaches.

“Even with the number of sufferers out there, migraines are still widely misunderstood—largely because those who don’t experience the condition can’t fully understand it…[t]hat’s why we created the world’s first migraine simulator…[t]his technological innovation makes it possible for non-sufferers to see what a migraine is really like,” says Excedrin on its website.

Those who have migraines can often face nausea, dizziness, extreme pain, and sensitivity to light. Virtual reality allows users to get a glimpse of these debilitating symptoms and can help doctors develop proper treatment for patients who might deal with this regularly.

For less common ailments, VR has also offered solutions. After injury, many patients struggle with breathing normally, and it can affect their daily lives after they try to recover from a traumatic accident. A new virtual reality experience offers breathing exercises through singing to help users develop strategies, almost like physical therapy for those dealing with muscular or nerve damage. Dr. Jeanette Tamplin has been involved in care for patients with spinal damage for a decade, and she is the creative genius behind this new technology now being used.

“The idea is to refine what we know in a virtual setting. The aim would be for four or five patients with spinal injuries to hook into an online session where we will perform the same singing and vocal exercises,” Tamplin explains.

This means that patients in any location can take part in a session and meet others dealing with the same issues on the road to recovery and develop relationships with others going through a similar process. Tamplin’s experience uses a campfire setting in order to encourage interaction between wearers—even though there happens to be physical distance. The hope is to make users comfortable enough to try these exercises when they might not feel so when in a room with a number of others watching and listening to their vocals. This includes the image of a real campfire and audio technology similar to a cellphone amplifier.

As of yet, many of these experiences are still unavailable to many since virtual reality has not been released on an affordable level yet. Even still, experts believe that not only will it be just a few years before consumers can readily purchase a fully-immersive VR system—and probably even sooner patients will see them in their doctors’ offices.

“Games, filmed entertainment, education, healthcare: these are all areas where VR can be hugely disruptive. But many analysts agree that [it] represents an even bigger opportunity,” writes Elad Natanson for Forbes. “The biggest waves are always caused by a new platform that changes the way we interact and live our lives in a fundamental way.”

How big of a wave will be made is yet to be seen, but with the opportunities that VR presents for the health industry just starting to become apparent, it is likely that patients will start to see changes soon. It is also likely that these experiences will craft how doctors interact with patients and understand the diseases they face through new eyes.

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