➣ By Giuseppe Riva
Within the emerging cybertherapy field, a central role is played by Virtual Reality (VR). If we check the two leading clinical databases – MEDLINE and PSYCINFO – using “Virtual Reality” as keywords we can find 3,336 papers listed in MEDLINE and 730 in PSYCINFO (all fields query, accessed 11 November 2011).
The first VR healthcare applications started in the early ‘90s to address medical staff’s need to visualize complex medical data, particularly during surgery and for surgery planning. Actually, surgery-related applications of VR fall mainly into three classes: surgery training, surgery planning and augmented reality for surgery sessions in open surgery, endoscopy, and radiosurgery. A couple of years later, the scope of VR applications in medicine has broadened to include neuropsychological assessment and rehabilitation. In general, VR in healthcare has two faces.
For physicians and surgeons, the ultimate goal of VR is the presentation of virtual objects to all of the human senses in a way that is identical to their natural counterpart. As noted by Professor Richard Satava, as more and more of the 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, as discussed widely in this issue, should provide realistic body parts or avatars that interact with external devices, such as surgical instruments, as closely as possible to their real models.
However, there is another way of using VR in healthcare. Clinical psychologists and rehabilitation specialists 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 3-D virtual world. Within the virtual experience the patient has the possibility of learning to manage a problematic situation related to his/her disturbance. The key characteristics of virtual environments for these professionals are both the high level of control of the interaction with the tool without the constraints usually found in computer systems, and the enriched experience provided to the patient.
For both sides, a critical advantage is that virtual environments are highly flexible and programmable. They enable the therapist to present a wide variety of controlled stimuli, and to measure and monitor a wide variety of responses made by the user. This flexibility can also be used to provide systematic experiential training to optimize the degree of transfer of training or generalization of learning to the person’s real world environment.
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.