A Healthy Dose of (Virtual) Reality

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May 7, 2016 at 10:33 am

You don’t have to look far to see how VR is exploding into the mainstream. Newsfeeds, tech websites, and even art galleries are flooded with the space-age technology. VR unlocks stunning new levels of sensory augmentation for industries like art and gaming. It offers artists, such as Jess Johnson, unparalleled psychedelic dimension to their work. Even a traditionally taboo topic, virtual porn, has had its fair share of publicity. The coming of age of high-resolution screens and lag-free motion sensors has finally brought the early 90’s technology into its practical maturity.

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A piece of Jess Johnson’s Warm Haus VR Exhibition at the NGV

A member of Gen Y, it’s hard not to get swept up in the technological wizardry that is Virtual Reality. My first experience donning a VR headset was an Oculus Gear VR, a unit specifically designed to house a Samsung Galaxy. The smart-phone screen wasn’t the highest resolution but I was enamoured by responsiveness and sense of perspective I experienced. The blue light of the ocean surrounded me, and as I turned my head, marine life circled my position.

Despite all the bells and whistles, the underwater trip was still a far cry from the “Total Recall” induced expectations I had ingrained as a child. What I learned next pushed my boundaries between reality and science fiction.

While my horizons filled with a digitally rendered blue whale, outside the Oculus headset I was standing in the middle of a day treatment centre in at Peter Mac Cancer Centre. Like hundreds of other hospitals, Peter Mac has adopted VR as a safer substitute for anaesthetic in many minor procedures such as administering injections, biopsies and even mammograms.

I know what you are thinking: the thought of someone wielding a scalpel outside of my virtual swimming trip sounds like my personal version of Jaws – but the practice is widely supported across the medical and scientific world. By using VR headsets, hospitals like Peter Mac have been able to reduce the use of heavy anaesthetics in many minor operations, instead opting for the combination of VR and a general anaesthetic, or no anaesthetic at all.

So how does it work?

For all you would be techno trippers, there are no psychoactive chemicals released from your brain related to the numbing effect of VR Headsets. Just like a good magic trip, the aesthetic qualities associated with the technology have mainly to do with one thing; distraction.

Distraction has been used as a crude form of pain management far longer than modern anaesthetics – just think of the trust bite on a stick method. Modern medicine has been dabbling in the pain management properties of distraction since the 1960’s, where doctors like McCaul and Malott theorised that the perception of pain is disrupted through sufficient distraction within an individual’s pain threshold.

In the case of VR, this distractive is enhanced through a process of sensory overload. When you wear a VR headset, you are no longer able to visualise your external limbs. VR represses touch, which only serves to augment visual and audio senses during the simulation.

The implications for VR pain management are pretty extensive. Besides from minimising overall medical costs, the practice also minimises the risk of anesthetic-related complications such as allergies and administering errors. The widespread accessibility of VR technology, particularly in platforms that adapt existing Smartphone technology such as Oculus Gear, has implications in accessing cheap, non-addictive, pain management solutions.

While I may still prefer a full knockout option if ever I need to go to under the knife, it’s reassuring to know that the medical sciences are developing avenues to get away from our reliance on pharmaceutical pain management.

 

Cover image via NBC