Imagine what it would be like to control robotic legs with your brain? Thanks to researchers for Duke University’s Walk Again Project, this sci-fi concept is a reality, and it is helping paraplegic patients regain control of their bodies. The project combines brain-machine interfaces with VR systems, allowing patients to control their legs using brain activity. The benefits of the exercise extend beyond the virtual and into the real world: according to project lead Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, the more time patients spend in this virtual reality environment, the greater their chance of regaining control over paralyzed parts of their bodies.
Could a VR app treat depression, paranoia, PTSD, and other psychological disorders? Researchers at Oxford and Cambridge Universities say yes. According to one study, virtual reality lets patients repeatedly experience difficult situations while receiving evidence-based therapy to overcome them. Oxford University sees enough potential in VR-guided psychotherapy that it launched its own spin-off company, Nowican, to eventually offer mental health-boosting experiences to the general public.
In the meantime, experts are also using virtual reality to assess patients for mental disorders by putting them in various scenarios and gauging their responses. This type of VR assessment could be used periodically to track the effectiveness of various therapies.
One of the largest challenges children with autism face is engaging with other children. Educators and therapists often turn to role-playing activities to teach and reinforce social skills, but these scenarios cannot replicate the reality of facing kids at the park. Enter virtual reality. Using VR products like Floreo, a startup backed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), experts can now use realistic, VR-simulated interactions to teach children social cognition skills. The environment can help children with autism practice everything from basic skills like eye contact to more complex skills like managing unexpected situations, all in a fun, non-threatening environment. Floreo Tech is currently looking for professionals in the field to help test their product.
Another way virtual reality helps children with autism is by helping other children and adults understand what it is like to live with autism. VR simulations like The Party let people without autism experience social scenarios as if they did, bright lights and loud noises included. This technique is also being used to grow awareness for other psychological conditions, including dementia and schizophrenia.
Movies that portray medical students nervously eying table-lain cadavers—real or synthetic—are not far from reality, but such experiences are a far cry from working with living patients. They are also insufficient: medical residents must sometimes perform a procedure hundreds of times before getting it just right. Residents traditionally gain this experience working with real patients in teaching hospitals. Unfortunately, as reported in Forbes, medical residents’ results are 300 percent worse than experienced surgeons. Now virtual reality can provide realistic medical experiences without the risk. Some VR systems even integrate haptic technology, which allows users to feel the resistance one would feel when performing a real surgery.
Surgical residents are likely to use VR long after their residencies. Today, VR systems let medical professionals consult with patients, plan procedures, and navigate medical images during surgery and post-surgical check-ups.
Perhaps one of the fastest-expanding uses of VR worldwide is military training. Even the best trained soldiers may stumble or freeze when placed in a real-world war zone inhabited by not just enemies, but civilians. Traditional training techniques are time-consuming, expensive, and sometimes dangerous. According to LTC Michael Stinchfield of the Combined Arms Center’s Training Innovation Facility at the National Simulation Center, VR systems help prepare today’s Armed Forces better and at a fraction of the cost. In addition to war-zone-reenactment, militaries use VR to train pilots and help soldiers practice battlefield first aid.
Some experts suggest VR can save the world—literally. There are two primary ways researchers are using virtual reality to protect the environment. The first is education. According to Yale, virtual reality can help people gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of environmental challenges, especially in slow-developing issues like mass extinction or climate change. The second way researchers are saving the world with VR is by using the technology for collaboration and environmental modeling. In one example reported in Mashable, scientists studying the declining jaguar population took video clips of the animal’s environment and converted them to VR. The experience let other global experts study the animal’s environment, habits, and movements. Experts then shared their own models and knowledge to address the problem.
As virtual reality devices become more affordable and, therefore, accessible, its uses have boomed exponentially. It is difficult to think of any industry immune from the technology’s benefits. Here are some other areas being transformed VR technology.
Jurors in criminal cases are asked to visualize a crime using information from two counter (often conflicting) sources. Drawings, photos, and expert testimony can only provide so much help. What if jurors could instead use virtual reality to walk through a reconstructed simulation of a crime scene, or witness a virtual dramatization of the crime as portrayed from either side? According to researchers at Stanford University, the immersive, interactive environment virtual reality offers could add significant value to courtroom proceedings.
People equipped with VR goggles and a NASA app can now explore Mars nearly first-hand, and enriched environmental simulations are only one promising application of VR. Experts are already using VR to help people on the ground interact with the International Space Station. In time, astronauts may be able to use VR to deploy and control robots making risky out-of-station repairs. Likewise, researchers could control similar robots from afar as they explore alien planets, collecting samples and taking measurements.
Researchers in the Canadian High Arctic may have another creative use for VR in space exploration: keeping astronauts sane on long journeys, including the proposed venture to mars. People restrained to small spaces for years at a time could use VR to visit other parts of the world, play physical games, and engage in other experiences to keep them psychologically comfortable.
If The Medical Futurist is right, tiny, Matrix-inspired robots might someday explore and repair our organs at the nanoscopic scale. According to the report, experts have already designed imaging robots that can navigate the body and performed live operations using VR systems. Now startups like Medsights Tech and EchoPixel are refining tech that gives doctors VR-driven and radiation-free x-ray views in real-time or allows doctors to interact with organs or tumors in an open space. With the addition of increasingly sophisticated (and smaller) surgical robots, procedures could become more precise, yet less invasive. The Medical Futurist proposes that such virtual reality tech will eventually become even more effective—by reducing human error—through the use of artificial intelligence.
In sum, benevolent VR is transforming the way we interact with the world, enhancing people’s safety, health, happiness, curiosity, and compassion. While much of VR’s hype lies in the entertainment industry, there’s a brighter future for everyone in its philanthropic applications.
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Discover the humanitarian applications of artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and big data, including exclusive interviews with industry predictions and a discussion of current advances across these sectors of software engineering.