Feature Story

VR for the mind, body, and soul

by Melissa Jun Rowley

Finding enlightenment through VR

More and more people are turning to VR to calm their mind, body and spirit.

Imagine enjoying a tranquil morning by the sea, while you're sitting in your urban jungle apartment. With guided virtual reality meditation programs, you can.

Futurist and VR/AR/MR consultant Robert Scoble says 2017 is going to be a significant year for VR and health and wellness. For decades, technology has been viewed as something that distracts people from self-awareness and ultimately, the ability to be present. But as VR begins to penetrate multiple industries, such as travel, journalism and entertainment, it's also making its way into the health and wellness sector, helping users reduce stress levels.

All you need is a pair of noise canceling headphones and a VR guided meditation like Deepak Chopra's Finding Your True Self. Produced with Chopra's son, Gotham Chopra, and the LA-based VR studio Wevr, the simulation combines ancient meditation techniques, color therapy with Hindu chakra imagery, and mixed reality technology to bring users to a higher state of consciousness.

See also: The virtual reality revolution

To coincide with the release of Finding Your True Self, Wevr launched a premium subscription for VR apps on its VR network Transport.  Chopra says he hopes to sell the guided VR meditation to airports, hospitals, and other locations via phones and laptops enabled with VR platforms. Thanks to smartphone-powered VR headsets, a number of similar meditation apps are flooding the wellness space.

In many cases, instead of thinking of VR as distracting people from their health, distraction can actually benefit patients who suffer from serious pain. 

When is technology as a "distraction" a good thing?

"VR is better at getting rid of pain more than morphine is," says Scoble. "Studies show this is true with burns victims. So if you can solve a burn victim's pain with VR better than with drugs, that's a pretty exciting thing."

Cedar-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles has been conducting research on VR therapy for burn victims since last year. Through the headsets, patients can virtually explore the topography of Iceland and swim with dolphins.

"It distracts your brain because VR makes you think you're actually having that experience," says Scoble.

See also: Rowan Trollope reimagines collaboration

While this is proving to be effective, and the price of a headset and software is less than keeping patients in the hospital, more research is needed before VR is going to be accepted as a main source of pain relief.

Beyond physical pain, VR is being used to treat mental health problems through exposure therapy, in which a patient faces traumatic memories through the retelling of an experience. VA hospitals, military bases and university centers all currently use this approach to reduce PTSD symptoms. The University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies uses VR-based exposure therapy tools to assess and treat combat-related PTSD.

Can VR be used for physical rehabilitation?

As for improving the mind and the body simultaneously, VR is making an impact there, as well.

The Swiss company MindMaze has brought neuroscience and VR together to aid patients recovering from strokes, amputations and spinal injuries. The goal is to have these people improve their motor functions faster than they would through physical therapy. The MindMaze program uses a motion-sensing camera to project a patient's avatar onto VR goggles. Then,  patients are able to command their limbs to move through harnessing electrodes on their heads. During this process, new neurons are activated.

So it appears that contrary to the early perceptions and purposes of VR, it isn't all just fun and games.


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