Virtual Reality Isn’t Just For Video Games Anymore

Virtual Reality Isn’t Just For Video Games Anymore

What do you get when you combine virtual reality (VR) technologies, clinical research and real-life transformations for patients and former military members? One hell of a lecture, and the crux of USC Professor Skip Rizzo’s pioneering work.

On Monday, Oct. 8, Rizzo, Director of Medical VR at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies, held a lecture in Gannett Auditorium discussing his research and development in VR technology for clinical purposes.

The main question that Rizzo served to answer in his lecture was: is VR is ready for “primetime” usage? He explained that though there’s been interest in VR technology for many decades now, the advancements of our time are unparalleled.

“Now that technology’s caught up with the vision, now we can do the cool stuff,” explained Rizzo.

One of Rizzo’s focuses is using VR to treat PTSD among soldiers. He and his team have been paid to create realistic simulations of environments like Vietnam, the World Trade Center, the Middle East and motor vehicle accidents. Other clinical uses include exposure therapy for anxiety disorders and addiction. Rizzo showed an example of a patient using augmented reality technology that displayed a spider crawling on them, in order to help cure their arachnophobia.

He explained that VR can also be used to “torture” someone suffering from substance addiction by showing them a substance they want but can’t have, an implementation of a strategy that is known as “cue-exposure therapy.”

The reason that VR works for these purposes, Rizzo explained, is that the limbic system responds to stimuli even if the frontal lobes know it’s fake; just because a patient knows they’re looking at a VR simulation doesn’t mean their bodies won’t still react as if it was real. However, Rizzo doesn’t intend for VR to replace traditional clinical practices.

“This technology doesn’t fix anyone; it’s a tool in the hands of a well-trained clinician,” he said. “You need a clinician in the loop no matter how much technology [you use].”

VR technology can also be used for distracting from pain— or, what Rizzo called, “the opposite of exposure.” Studies have shown that engaging in a virtual reality experience results in a lower pain perception during chemotherapy or even surgery.

Still, Rizzo admitted that there are dangers to VR technology, including cyber sickness, overuse and escapism, delusions and violence.

“We have to be really careful that that potency doesn’t get flipped around… maybe it doesn’t help people get better, maybe it hurts them,” said Rizzo. He also acknowledged the “feeding frenzy” for VR headsets, which started when Oculus, a VR company, was sold to Facebook. “I think that’s really where VR is going to get commercial traction in the future,” he said. “There’s no doubt that VR is penetrating the public consciousness.”

Rizzo concluded that VR has indeed advanced to the point where it can be used not just for video games, but for clinical purposes as well.

“I think VR is ready for primetime. Maybe it’s got a little more to go in some areas, but you can use it thoughtfully and make a difference,” he said.

Welcome to the future, everyone.

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