A Virtual History: Connecting With Realities Of Healthcare


Every Virtual Reality (VR) fan knows the story of how in the mid 1950s a cinematographer Morton Heilig built the Sensorama that tried to embed movie-goers into the environment of the movie by using various theatrical equipment (moving chairs, fans, aroma emitters.) Concepts of interactivity, immersion, and representation are part of the core of VR today. But the technology of the future lagged on arrival.

The first VR head-mounted display (HMD), the Headsight, was intended for high-danger military use and training simulation. In 1965 a scientist named Ivan Sutherland conceived (not developed) the “Ultimate Display” where what was seen on screen in the virtual world could appear as real as the real world.

Development of VR technology remained in the military and out of public use until 1980. Michael McGreevy began developing VR technology in the context of human-computer interface (HCI) design in 1985; and in 1987, the term Virtual Reality was coined. Its potential became things of film; yet, the hype around its potential fizzled as it became apparent that the technology was nowhere near complete.

“I first got into VR in the early 1990’s, when the first real push to apply this military-born technology into more useful, people friendly applications began. We started looking at VR in terms of learning, design, therapy, and psychology.” says Firsthand Technology’s Howard Rose.

By 1993 Seattle’s HIT Lab VR Frontier Central’s educator Dr. Bill Winn led his team of VR pioneers. Their mission was to test how a 7-pound HMD worked on children’s heads.

“It was the wild west of the Virtual Reality industry. We took every technology available and threw it at all sorts of problems. The cool thing is some of it actually stuck! In those days, the dream of VR felt like it was just around the corner.” But it would take 20 years before VR for the masses would become a reality.

In the interim, computers sped and shrunk enough to carry the Ivan Sutherland-era supercomputer around in pockets. Sensors and trackers that only a few short years ago cost thousands of dollars to produce have become cheap commodities.

With all this, the last roadblock fell at the development of the 3D display. Oculus Rift founder, Palmer Luckey, was driven by his love of computer games to develop a comfortable HMD for the world of gamers. Without a commercial product released, Oculus is just beginning to affect the story of VR’s emergence. However, momentum around the development of new wearable displays, full-body tracking suits, wireless controllers, haptic systems, augmented reality glasses invigorates the sense that VRs potential is near to being realized. With this realization, it’s not too hard to see its potential, especially in healthcare.

Howard’s company, Firsthand Technology, has survived the ups and downs of the VR industry since the early 1990s. “My partner, Ari Hollander, and I started Firsthand because we were excited about changing the way technology worked for people.”

Firsthand specializes in creating serious games for health, with a long track record of using virtual reality as a means to control pain. Partnering with scientists Dr. Hunter Hoffman and Dr. David Patterson at the University of Washington, they developed games like SnowWorld for pain distraction during wound care and other hospital procedures. Howard describes SnowWorld as “A first-person-snowballer, where the fun of throwing snowballs and the immersive qualities of the 3D VR experience combine to transport people from the treatment room into a much better place.” A powerful analgesic effect.

So if Firsthand’s Technology’s concept works, where is it and when can you get it?

“Firsthand is working on that,” says Howard. “VR helmets were way too expensive, and not very well suited for everyday use. That’s why we developed our own 3D display, with all the best characteristics we wanted for pain control.”

Firsthand calls their invention the DeepStream Viewer. DeepStream slides over a laptop screen and turns it into a panoramic 3D theater. They created a VR experience that is very immersive and easy on the eyes without requiring any restrictive goggles or headgear. In comparison to an HMD, a study revealed there was no difference in the effectiveness in pain control with the DeepStream 3D Viewer.

Beyond pain distraction, there’s a growing number of other applications of VR in healthcare yielding promising benefits. The range spans virtual medical simulation to new avenues for cybertherapy for PTSD and phobias.  Across the healthcare spectrum, people are finding that VR aligns with the drive to increase quality of care while lowering costs in healthcare.

According to Howard, VR can be leveraged for creating healthcare applications by:

  • Insight into Ourselves: VR gives us a direct link into the mind/body interaction. Virtual environments are infinitely controllable, enabling us to examine perception and brain activity at a neuro-level. With this, new targeted therapies and medications can be created.
  • Interaction: VR is an interactive medium that opens doors for active learning by doing rather than watching. For healthcare this might mean medical training or education for public health efforts in behavior modification.
  • Representation: Virtual worlds are a representation of actual experience. It’s up to the designer to decide how real or fantastic the experience is. Therapist can use this control of realism, time, and space to create new therapies for phobias and disorders.
  • Immersion & Presence: Immersion is the sense of being drawn into the virtual world, and presence is the visceral sense that the virtual place is physically authentic. Immersion and Presence are the foundation of what makes VR a unique experience and sensation, where the individual only focuses on the thing at hand and everything else falls away. This is the magic that makes all the other things happen.

“This is a very exciting time to be working in virtual reality.” Howard says. “We’ve seen amazing results in healthcare application already. It’s all really happening.”

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Susan E. Williams (@estherswilliams) explores experiments at the intersection of health care and technology, particularly around how mobile apps, games and sensory apparatus change the way we pay attention, understand, and make decisions about our bodies, emotions, and behavior. Susan received her BA in cultural anthropology from Columbia University and her MA in East Asian Culture, with an emphasis on Japan, from New York University. She is on the board of Health 2.0 Seattle, and works (and believes) in social media communications for health care and science.


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