Recently, a few of us here at WillowTree had the chance to help out with the Health UnBound annual Virtual Reality Hack-a-thon at UVA. Health UnBound, or “HUB”, is a student-run independent organization that seeks to promote medical entrepreneurship. It does this by providing funding opportunities to students and by holding skills workshops and special events.
At HUB’s VR Hack-a-thon event, student teams competed to design and build a virtual reality experience that would make physical therapy more enjoyable for children with multiple sclerosis. Event organizers let teams choose to develop for one of two hypothetical patients, each of whom had a different physical therapy goal. Teams then brainstormed, storyboarded, and implemented an idea for a VR experience that would help their patient with their goal.
WillowTree volunteers acted as mentors to student teams. We provided them with technical and design guidance for Google Cardboard and the Unity game engine. In a lot of ways, virtual reality is still an emerging technology, so we had to temper expectations a bit for what teams could accomplish with it.
Even so, students came up with some amazing ideas for how to improve their users’ physical therapy experience. One team made a game where the user works their core muscles while rowing a kayak down a river. Another team developed a virtual football game that helps the user practice their walking. It was really great to see teams focus not just on the physical therapy aspect of their games but also on making their games fun.
We learned from the healthcare professionals at the hackathon that physical therapy can be quite grueling for children with MS, so it was exciting to see student teams work so hard to address the emotional needs of their users.
Storyboard for a river kayaking VR experience:
In-development VR football game rendered in Unity:
VR as Treatment
We often think of virtual reality in terms of gaming, or 360 media. While those are all very ubiquitous (and exciting) applications, one overlooked breakthrough for this technology is in the use in therapy and other medical treatments. Described as a “high bandwidth channel into our brains” by Howard Rose a medical VR pioneer, VR provides a level of immersion and interactivity that can be leveraged to reduce anxiety, treat addiction, and even reduce chronic pain.
Through work by such companies like FirstHand Technology, or research organizations like HITLab, a body of evidence is growing that shows VR might be a viable alternative to more accepted forms of treatment. For example, during trials with burn victims undergoing extremely painful wound care sessions, patients playing VR games reported a 50% reduction in pain compared to other forms of distraction.
In Knoxville, TN, in the heart of the countries opioid epidemic, doctors at PCET use VR to reduce the anxiety of those suffering from addiction to painkillers. Using a game called SnowWorld, patients are able to float through snowy canyons and throw snowballs at snowmen and penguins. These simple interactive models create such a level of immersion that patients report significant reduction in pain and anxiety:
"Mentally taking people to a distant, safe place reduces their anxiety, he says, while interactivity – the ability to move around an environment and throw snowballs, for example – helps them to feel more in control.” Howard Rose, CEO FirstHand Technologies, (Virtual-reality worlds filled with penguins and otters are a promising alternative to painkillers by Jo Merchant, Quartz, May 2017)
Another very promising application is in cognitive therapies like treatment of anxiety disorders, PTSD, and extreme phobias. Again, by leveraging the core properties of virtual reality - high immersion, interactivity, and distraction - medical professionals can successfully treat patients in a way that reduces medication or eliminates it altogether. News about breakthroughs such as these made participating in the Virtual Reality Hack-a-thon at UVA with Health UnBound so amazing. To think that a virtual reality experience could help another person reduce pain associated with treatment or a chronic condition brings importance and deep purpose to a technology that is still in its very early stages.
WillowTree volunteers really enjoyed working with Health UnBound at their VR Hack-a-thon this year. Special thanks to UVA student Katharine Biegert for giving us this opportunity. We look forward to working with her and HUB again in the future.