Tech trends come and go, but if there’s one that has made a lasting impact—it’s virtual reality (VR). True enough, a Valuates’ study found that the VR market size will continue to grow by 34.5% year-over-year until 2025. By 2026, it will be worth over $19.8 billion. Much of VR’s growth has been attributed to entertainment uses like 3D simulations and gaming. In fact, we once wrote a feature on animator and gaming designer Ning Cheng who has been using VR to develop interesting projects for both. But VR is much more than that. For example, CNBC notes the “boom” in the use of VR in corporate training amidst these troubling times. It’s being used to conduct “face-to-face” meetings as well. Furthermore, an article on VR by HP explains how it has already been used to help speed up pilot training in a more hands-on way, as well as by NASA to help pilots learn in an interactive, low-risk simulated environment. Now, VR has spread its influence to other sectors too, thanks to research by Professor Ryuta Kawashima.
IVR in clinical care
From the creator of the popular mind tester game, Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training, comes an exciting discovery in neuroscience. Dr. Kawashima and his fellow researchers at the Smart-Aging Research Center created a training protocol that, with the use of fully-immersive VR technology (IVR), led to real mental (and physical) benefits. This study was born out of the notion that exercise not only helps the body but the brain too. Being Patient has highlighted a couple of these benefits, from boosting memory to improving mood. However, Dr. Kawashima realized there are people out there who are suffering or recovering from long-term illness (like arthritis) who struggle to take advantage of the mental perks of exercise. This is where technology comes in handy. He proved that VR or, more specifically, IVR—a very vivid 3D VR experience with multisensory feedback—could trick the brain into believing illusions. Healthy young participants went under an eight-minute exercise IVR simulation and came out of it with an increased heart rate. They also found that some regions of the brain that are typically triggered by physical movements, like the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (which regulates mood), were activated. “The application of immersive virtual reality for clinical purposes is often doubted because it was originally designed for entertainment,” mentioned Dr. Dalila Burin, the conductor of the experiment. “But this study proves that training protocols in IVR can be useful for people with motor impairments to have comparable benefits to real physical activity.” She further adds that it’s an ideal solution for people who want to exercise in an entertaining way as well.
The future of IVR in medicine
While the study is still at its preliminary phase, the possibilities that it has presented are endless. For example, it could be used as an alternative to training the memory lobe of someone who has Alzheimer’s or bringing the benefits of cardio to those who have diabetes. Indeed, with more tests, VR could bring about a whole revolution in the cognitive neuroscience field.