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How medical care benefits from VR/AR and virtual humans

During VRDC 2017 in San Francisco today, Director of Research and Development Integration at USC Institute for Creative Technologies Arno Hartholt lead a discussion about immersive medical care.

VR/AR is utilized in professions outside the realm of games and entertainment and offers unique capabilities for health-related research and treatment, especially with the introduction of virtual humans as beneficial assets in the medical field.

During VRDC Fall 2017 in San Francisco today, Director of Research and Development Integration at USC Institute for Creative Technologies Arno Hartholt lead a discussion about immersive medical care to an audience of curious minds interested in the innovative ways VR/AR is being used today. 

The talk started off with a question: How can we use VR/AR in the clinical field? In regards to clinical VR, Hartholt provided numerous examples as to how simulations were being used to determine everything from early signs of depression for young adults/adults to ADHD in children. "What they see and what they hear is in your control," he said. "This is why we use VR for exposure therapy." 

The goal for VR exposure therapy is to help patients confront the feared stimuli in a safe environment in order to correct the dysfunctional associations that have been established between the stimulus and perceived threat. Hartholt discussed how those who were claustrophobic (with the supervision of a clinician) could be exposed to the same room in multiple different scenarios. Maybe the door to the room is wide open, providing a sense of relief for the patient. Next time the same room will become smaller. 

BRAVEMIND, a VR simulation developed in 2003/2004, was created to alleviate the effects of PTSD in soldiers recovering from the experience of going to war. It may be using VR, but make no mistake: this is no game for the soldiers. They can't shoot or interact with their surroundings, but are fully immersed with smells, sights, and vibrations. Clinicians choose and create different scenarios at a pace in which the soldier can handle, gradually working their way up until improvements are made.

"One thing that's missing is having more interaction with characters in these environments."  That's where virtual humans come into play. The goal with virtual humans is to create compelling characters that can engage users in meaningful and realistic social interactions. Hartholt discussed the prototype SimSensei where a virtual human Ellie could be used to help determine early signs of depression in users. "People feel more comfortable talking to a virtual human because they feel less judged." 

The necessity of the clinician retaining complete control over the simulation was repeatedly expressed through Hartholt. "You want to be able to control the environment." Having all stimuli whether it be sounds, body language, or physical environment in the hands of a trained professional is an invaluable tool for patients.

As the talk draws to a close, Hartholt discusses the future of VR in the medical field. VR treatment is safe, effective, and on the road to becoming more accessible with the rise of low-cost mobile phones and head-mounted displays. But it isn't an exact replica of reality and it shouldn't be, he argues.

Virtual humans and exposure therapy within VR won't replace actual clinicians. "We need to guard against the perception that VR tools are designed to eliminate the need for a well-trained clinician." He explained. "It's a tool, not a replacement." 

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