This summer, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) took the world of gaming by storm. At the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the gaming industry’s premier conference, dozens of VR games were on display, and the breakout game of the summer was undoubtedly Pokémon Go, where players could interact with the titular magical creatures through images on their phones that made Pokémon appear to be in the same real-world locations as players. Gaming isn’t the only space where VR and AR technologies are prompting disruption and enabling a new wave of innovations, however: Digital health is also seeking to take full advantage of the possibilities of VR and AR.
Digital health’s interest in VR and AR technology is part of a larger trend known as gamification, which uses apps or games to encourage people to be more aware of their health, to maintain a more active lifestyle, or to provide new methods for teaching doctors and other healthcare providers. VR and AR are natural areas for digital health to explore, then, because of increasing public access to advanced smartphones or VR-enabled devices as well as the potential medical and therapeutic benefits that can stem from using these fully interactive, immersive simulations.
While the technology still has plenty of room for development, companies are already applying VR and AR to digital health in novel ways. Phoria, an Australian VR firm, has already created a product called DREAM3D for use by children in hospitals. Thanks to DREAM3D, children can use VR headsets to have unique experiences–like an adventure with a panda or a giraffe–to distract them from the pain of their illness or the length of their hospitalization. This can lead to reduced anxiety and better pain management for the children, which is absolutely vital. Phoria has actually received a grant from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute to continue developing DREAM3D.
Products like DREAM3D highlight the enormous potential of VR and AR in the digital health space. Today, that technology helps children feel relief during long stays in the hospital, but soon, it could evolve into immersive forms of exposure therapy where, for example, individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) re-live traumatic moments so that they can begin to process and overcome their emotions. It could lead to simulated surgeries where doctors learn what it’s like to operate on a patient before they ever put on scrubs. So while there is still a long way to go before the full potential of this technology is realized, VR and AR are making new advances in digital health a reality.