The buzz surrounding virtual reality is reaching a fevered pitch since the successful Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift headset in 2012. Developers and hardware manufacturers are experimenting with a myriad of different application to see how this new paradigm can be applied to entertainment, training, marketing, medicine, and numerous other avenues.
In the world of medicine, virtual reality related research has been ongoing for sometime. It really started to ramp up in the mid to late 90s, right around the period when there was an initial (but failed) attempt to market VR headsets to the public. More likely than not this new generation of low cost and high performing headsets will only hasten the demonstrated trend of accelerating research in the field.
What has been a fascinating application of VR technology is the diagnosis of various disease states, from mental conditions like schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and traumatic brain injury to eye conditions such as glaucoma. Patients with early Alzheimer’s utilize different regions of the brain for navigating 3D virtual environments, something that can be detected using fMRI. Schizophrenic patients also have changes in the areas of the brain used when perceiving their environment. Researchers at Toronto Western Hospital are performing pilot studies to detect early changes in peripheral vision in glaucoma patients using the Rift which have had promising results. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison a team found the headset can even be used to measure the range of motion of the cervical spine to detect any abnormalities.
When exploring some of this research, however, there is a little bit of confusion in terms of what is considered virtual reality, or even immersive virtual reality. Currently, in the consumer space immersive virtual reality would describe a system incorporating some type of head mounted display with dual image output and natural stereoscopic vision in addition to rotational head tracking technology with or without positional head tracking. However, in the scientific literature “virtual reality” and “immersive virtual reality” can have widely variable meanings. 2D first-person style worlds such as a “Second Life” are often described as immersive virtual reality. This can be confusing to researchers and the press, but what is exciting is that this means we have only really scratched the surface of research into the diagnostic capabilities of the VR head mounted display. Agreement in the medical community on proper terminology regarding this technology can help expedite the review of existing literature in addition to more effectively communicating about these breakthroughs to the public.