• Patients don an Oculus Rift viewer, which is commercially available, that transforms their view from a hospital room into a luxury hotel room. (Viewpoint)Source: Viewpoint
The technology is finding multiple medical uses, writes Mark White.
By
Mark White

24 Aug 2016 - 1:12 PM  UPDATED 11 Oct 2016 - 2:00 PM

Long-term patients in an Australian hospital are being given a revolutionary new virtual-reality (VR) technique to try and reduce stress associated with their stay – with spectacular early results.

Perth-based Viewport, part of a growing VR hub in WA, spent a couple of months working on the project, which aims to distract sufferers from their surroundings.

Patients don an Oculus Rift viewer, which is commercially available, that transforms their view from a hospital room into a luxury hotel room.

The team of four created relaxing virtual environments, visible through a huge glass window from the room, which cycle from mountains to a redwood forest to a beach, like an immersive slideshow.

“Though they're stuck in a bed, they can travel around the world,” says Viewport co-founder Julius Jeppe, who is unable to name the hospital or fully describe the system due to commercial-in-confidence considerations.

Though they're stuck in a bed, they can travel around the world.

But he says he has been told that for many of the patients “their anxiety levels go down massively”. He adds, “Medications aren't good in the long run.” The goal is to “wean people off them and take them to other environments ... out of that mindset into a fantasy land where they would much rather be”.

The firm has also modelled the effects of a pharmaceutical company’s medication on the human body to help with its marketing - with the viewer the size of a blood cell.

Viewport's hospital project, which is still being trialled, is similar in scope to a trial recently announced at Hollywood Private Hospital in Perth, where day-patients are given VR goggles of beach images to keep their anxiety at bay.

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Other medical uses for VR are springing up, such as tackling a wide range of phobias at the Virtual Reality Medical Centre (VRMC) in Los Angeles. They use standard exposure techniques in a computer-generated world – a spider made of pixels, for example – before repeated exposure helps the patient control their response.

There is also work on using VR to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, help with chronic pain management and even the live-streaming of surgery.

A study released this month in Scientific Reports even showed VR helped partially reverse paralysis in eight paraplegics, despite their spinal cord injuries being deemed permanently damaged.

"We couldn't have predicted this surprising clinical outcome when we began the project,” project leader Dr Miguel Nicolelis, of Duke University, says in a press release, "until now, nobody has seen recovery of these functions in a patient so many years after being diagnosed with complete paralysis."

Until now, nobody has seen recovery of these functions in a patient so many years after being diagnosed with complete paralysis.

The patients wore an Oculus Rift headset and were told to think of themselves as a soccer player moving around the pitch – the team, the Walk Again Project, famously put a young disabled boy in an exoskeleton to kick off the World Cup in Brazil in 2014.

Electrodes in a snugly fitted cap on their heads captured their thoughts which were translated to their virtual body, giving them the illusion of movement and allowing them to control the exoskeleton. But the effort unexpectedly also “rewired” their bodies, with each regaining some control of muscles below their original, catastrophic injury.

“We've entering a period of really interesting times,” says Professor John McGhee, the director of the 3D Visualisation Aesthetics Lab at UNSW's school of art and design. “A lot of things are lining ups - improved technology, headsets and screens, really good graphics cards. Also in my case, a lot of data that would benefit from immersive interaction rather than a 2D screen.”

His lab recently produced a VR model of a cancer cell with researchers from Monash University, building a mesh of all the different microscopic components, the result resembling the terrain of an alien world. Scientists can “walk” across the cell, using controllers which come with the HTC Vive headset, as if they were 40 one-billionths of a metre tall.

The model is produced from a scan, but McGhee and his team are working on a VR representation of a living system, which would allow the results of tests to be seen in real time - which could revolutionise how drugs are tested. Like Jeppe, he says there is more talk than action at the moment, but both expect applications to begin to cascade.

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