Virtual reality technologies aren’t only for the gamers out there

Research suggests that virtual reality technologies may be the future for helping those suffering with mental health issues and the livelihoods of seniors


What used to be mere fun and games is now becoming a key player in treating various mental health conditions. Virtual reality (VR) technologies are being introduced to patients of hospitals and care homes across Canada. The premise is that users are able to escape to a more pleasing environment, and can keep their mind off of anything that may negatively affect them in their actual life.

OpenLab at Toronto General Hospital is hoping to improve the lives of seniors, in particular. For patients who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s, it is dangerous for them to wander around outside of the hospital, despite their willingness to do so. VR technology allows them to enjoy the same positive effects of going for a walk outside, while in a safe place for them to do so. This could also be beneficial to patients who suffer from depression or anxiety, where VR technology would allow them to experience being in a place that is more enjoyable for them.

Mount Royal University professor, Anthony Chaston, is focusing his studies on VR for anxiety treatment for hospital patients. According to CBC News, Chaston mentioned reasearch shows “[. . .] that being exposed to natural environments and relaxing environments will lower anxiety levels.”

In his project, they have emulated this by having users walk through beaches, Japanese zen gardens, and mountains. They hope to continue to fine-tune the experience by making sure they have virtual realities that will appease all demographics, as what’s relaxing for some may not be for others.

As for the researches at OpenLab, they’ve had some obstacles to face. Wearing the VR headset has been proven to be quite overwhelming for some users, even causing motion sickness in some. However, this may be surmounted with training, in order to adapt to these new sensations — similar to the training astronauts receive.

For now, seniors are trying different types of VR that does not require the headset component. These include driving simulators and CAREN (Computer-Assisted Rehabilitation Environment), which is has been especially helpful for assisting those learning to walk after severe injury.

An article in VR Fitness Insider claims that VR technology will be the answer to many health issues in the future. VR could be the key to helping people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and for amputees. Those who suffer from SAD experience extreme mental and physical deterioration of their health in winter months when they have limited exposure to the sun. As they must stay indoors during the coldest times of the year, VR would be able to emulate the summer all year long for them, enabling them to have an improved lifestyle during their hardest time of the year.

For amputees suffering from phantom limb pain, researchers at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden are working on a VR headset that can interpret signals from the brain and produce a visual replication of what their limb could previously do — almost like in Avatar! Almost.

In all of these cases, VR is proven to show a significant positive change in patients. As VR technology is rapidly becoming more advanced, the results in the medical field are surely to improve as well.