U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jeff Ebert wears a virtual-reality headset and holds a video-game-type controller Friday, June 29, 2007, as he demonstrates an experimental virtual-reality computer simulation at Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis, Wash., that psychologists plan to begin using in the future to treat soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. | ASSOCIATED PRESS
Virtual reality (VR) can make anything possible.
While Facebook's recent $2 billion acquisition of virtual reality hardware company Oculus VR might seem like the future of communication technology, virtual reality is so much more than a better way to kill zombies and Skype into your little brother's birthday party. In fact, VR has been a technological do-gooder for years, managing to do everything from curing amputees' phantom pains to getting young people to save more for retirement.
Here's a look at some of the greatest things virtual reality technology has done outside the realm of social media and communication.
Curing Phantom Pains In Amputee Victims
One of the most common complaints from amputee victims is the feeling of phantom pain -- feeling the missing limb but not being able to see or control it. Exactly what causes phantom pain is unknown, but it's likely a result of the brain still recognizing the limb even though it's no longer there.
Despite the frequency of this problem, there's no one method of dealing with the pain that works for all amputees.
But an experimental study, detailed in the journal Frontiers for Neuroscience, soothed one man's chronic phantom pain after 48 years of suffering by allowing him to not only see a virtual representation of the limb, but also to control it using electrodes attached to the base of the missing limb that measured muscle movement. The patient reported a drastic improvement in his phantom pain.
The therapy needs to undergo more tests before it can be more widely used in treatment.
Soothing Burn Victims' Painful Therapy
Burn patients, as well, can benefit from the use of virtual reality. Suffering through agonizingly painful treatment and therapy (such as the cringe-inducing "skin stretching" therapy) can be eased through a virtual game called "SnowWorld," first used by Loyola University Hospital in Maywood, Ill.
The game puts victims as far from their injuries as mentally possible by letting them shoot snowballs at penguins and snowmen while jamming to Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al" (or whatever else they choose to listen to). The treatment helps distract patients by letting them have a little fun while also visually simulating a more comfortable environment for them. MRI results, as well as patient testimony, show that it's succeeding.
Therapy For Soldiers Suffering From PTSD
VR has been effective in treating soldiers who have returned from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and are suffering from PTSD.
In this video, you see how the patient is gradually kept under stress by visiting a virtual representation of a Middle Eastern town. The therapy keeps the patient under reasonable amounts of stress so that he can learn to handle the stress and, hopefully, control it.
While many consider this treatment controversial, proponents say it can be effective for some patients when used in conjunction with other forms of treatment.
PTSD isn't the only psychological disorder VR can help to treat. The Virtual Reality Medical Center says phobias, anxiety disorders, and panic disorders can all be treated as well.
Treating Children With Autism
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Virtual Reality has proved effective at treating children with autism. It can help them learn social cues, fine-tune motor skills, or experiment with real-world lessons like waiting until it's safe to cross the street.
One reason behind the treatment's efficacy could be that children with autism interact well with technology, specifically virtual reality. Justine Cassell, director of Northwestern University’s Center for Technology and Social Behavior, told NBC News that it's the technology's predictability, controllability and "infinite patience" that makes it such an effective teacher for these children.
While these two youngsters are working with an Xbox One Kinect in this photo (also a sort of virtual reality), head-mounted displays are also used in this research.
Allowing Surgical Students To Practice Techniques
Medical students don't have very many chances at the "error" part of trial-and-error learning. It's a big jump from operating on a human in theory to making the first cut on the operating table. Virtual reality makes "practice makes perfect" more practical.
Recent uses of virtual reality in medicine include 3D simulation of a woman giving birth, which could help doctors prepare game plans for an abnormal pregnancy.
There are also simulators for every type of surgery imaginable, from brain surgery to plastic surgery. As you can see in the video, they look and feel just like they would in the operating room.
Convincing Millenials To Save For Retirement
It's not just medicine that's being improved by virtual reality. Some are finding uses for the technology in some surprising industries like the financial industry.
An experiment by the Virtual Human Interaction Lab used virtual reality goggles to show 20-somethings what they would look and move like in their 60's in an attempt to get more young people to start saving for retirement early.
The experiment worked. According to ABC News, those who wore the goggles put twice as much money into a hypothetical retirement account than those who did not.