➣ By Giuseppe Riva
In this and in the last issues we reviewed in this journal different applications of virtual reality (VR) in medicine. All of these researchers share a common vision of what virtual reality is: a collection of technologies that allow people to interact efficiently with 3D computerized databases in real time using their natural senses and skills (2). This definition lacks any reference to head mounted displays and instrumented clothing such as gloves or suits. In fact, less than 10% of VR health care applications in medicine are actually using any immersive equipment.
However, if we focus our attention on behavioral sciences, where immersion is used by more than 50% of the applications, VR is described as an advanced form of human-computer interface that allows the user to interact with and become immersed in a computer-generated environment in a naturalistic fashion.
These two definitions underline two different visions of VR.
Clinical psychologists and rehabilitators use VR to provide a new human- computer interaction paradigm in which users are no longer simply external observers of images on a computer screen but are active participants within a computer- generated three-dimensional virtual world. The key characteristics of virtual environments for these professionals are both the high level of interaction control using the tool without the constraints usually found in other computer systems, and the enriched experience provided to the patient.
For physicians, and surgeons, the ultimate goal of VR is the presentation of virtual objects to all of the human senses identical to their natural counterpart. As more and more medical technologies become information based, it will be possible to represent a patient with higher fidelity to a point that the image may become a surrogate for the patient – the medical avatar. In this sense, an effective VR system should offer real-like body parts or avatars that interact with external devices (e.g. surgical tools) and drugs as near as possible to their real models. Using medical avatars, the researchers hope to predict the biological effects of the various drugs in the hope of finetuning their components and, ideally, eliminating the costs of unsuccessful trials before they are even synthesized. Although these efforts are still in there infancy, both commercial and academic research is continuing to make improvements in simulation tools and our understanding of how the body works until we reach the point where our medical avatar can be as effective as a real human in predicting the positive and negative effects of drugs.
Giuseppe Riva, Ph.D.
Istituto Auxlogico Italiano
President of Virtual Reality Medical Institute (VRMI) in Brussels, Belgium. Executive VP Virtual Reality Medical Center (VRMC), based in San Diego and Los Angeles, California. CEO of Interactive Media Institute a 501c3 non-profit Clinical Instructor in Department of Psychiatry at UCSD Founder of CyberPsychology, CyberTherapy, & Social Networking Conference Visiting Professor at Catholic University Milan.