Computer technology’s positive impact on culture is overt. Human beings accomplish tasks faster, more efficiently, and in a greater number. In fact, most of society’s day-to-day tasks involve a computer at some point, whether we are corresponding in a professional environment or simply watching a favorite program on the television. Ours is truly and indisputably an electronic era. However, how can computers impact us on a more personal level? How can these machines affect our lives at the most personal point of all, our health?
Virtual reality specialists are answering that question with the advent of exciting new technologies—technologies which promise invaluable new tools in the fight against physical and mental ailments. Two such technologies—CAREN and virtual combat simulation—have validated the use of virtual reality in the medical community. These revolutionary treatments offer new hope for two diverse groups, physiotherapy patients and combat veterans stricken with mental illness. Technology plays a crucial role in virtual reality therapies.
One prominent technology utilized in physiotherapy is Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment (CAREN). This revolutionary program is the creation of MOTEK, a motion simulation company. MOTEK developed the virtual reality system as a healing assistance tool for the disabled and the injured. CAREN sessions generally last for half an hour, and take place three times a week. During the sessions, patients are monitored with sensors attached to the body. These sensors monitor both patient movements and vital signs.
Movements are encouraged by a computerized system which features sight simulation and a series of steps. The simulation recreates the visual of a choppy sea on a screen placed in front of the patient. The patient then uses the steps (which recreate the movements of a boat) to navigate through the waves. One war injury patient described the experience as follows: “They put the platform in a way that I will walk mostly on my injured foot” (“Virtual Reality” 1). Although many countries use CAREN for medical research, Israel was the first country to use the system specifically for medical treatment.
Beneficiaries pay roughly 600,000 dollars for the technology. A synonymous technology has received a show of faith from the highest power in the country, the United States government. Government officials have invested in a series of virtual reality program designed to help war veterans afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Sessions run for five weeks, roughly ten therapy sessions. The system first stimulates the senses of sight, smell, hearing, and touch by simulating everyday scenes from a combat country.
For example, an Iraqi scene might include such common objects as mosques, villages, and desert roads. After the patient has acclimated to these scenarios, the program then fully immerses the patient in a virtual combat scene, complete with all of the accompanying sights, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations. Dr. Albert Rizzo, whom has played a key role in developing the technology for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, has witnessed his program “installed at 15 Army and Marine Corps sites,” where he believes that the technology will “hasten treatment for the early signs of PTSD” (Brewin 1).
The virtual reality technology employed by CAREN and virtual combat simulation has yielded positive benefits for patients. In the case of CAREN, the incorporated physical movements (as patients move up and down the step platform) have proven invaluable for patients undergoing physiotherapy. Since technicians are able to control both wind speed and wave size in the virtual atmosphere, patients move their legs in ways which enhance navigation. Therefore, patients develop a better sense of balance. Improvements in the patients’ conditions are monitored through the body-attached sensors.
Also, audio stimuli (dance music) combined with the virtual scenes creates an atmosphere where patients can experience relief from their injuries. As one doctor characterizes, “(By) being immersed in a virtual environment, we are distracting them from their pain” (“Virtual Reality” 1). Another pain relief technique offered by the system involves the use of non-injured limbs to aid in the virtual tasks. Using the arms to hit an object while simultaneously exercising the injured limbs would serve as one example of such multi-tasking.
The addition of these features also allows patients to take the focus off of their pain, as demonstrated with patients ranging from stroke victims to Parkinson’s sufferers. Similar technology has also proven beneficial in medical treatments such as phobia intervention and chemotherapy. CAREN patients report faster recovery and a more enjoyable healing period. Despite the positive results, patients can and usually do “plateau” (a period when little improvement takes place) because natural healing is still an essential part of the recovery process.
The effect of virtual technology on mental states has been documented above with CAREN, but many virtual reality systems are designed exclusively for improving mental health. Virtual combat simulation is just such a system. Since the technology treats veterans who have experienced war-related trauma, it is important to understand a bit of the psychology of war survivors. According to cognitive psychologist Hunter Hoffman, avoidance is a common response for veterans. In fact, an estimated fifteen percent of combat veterans manifest symptoms of avoidance.
Refusal to talk about or even acknowledge war experiences can seep into all aspects of a war survivor’s life, opening the door for a wide range of problems: alcoholism, substance abuse, depression, impaired personal relationships, and terrifying flashbacks. For sufferers of PTSD, the latter symptom can be the most devastating. Frequent, all-too-real memories which plague the victim demonstrate the mind’s need to process and confront war-time experiences. Enter virtual combat simulation. This virtual system does not simply attempt a
cursory visual recreation of war-related scenes, which is a limitation of the imaginal exposure techniques used by therapists. Rather, realizing that other senses are powerful contributors in memory creation, the simulations’ inventors have provided a comprehensive and stunningly realistic experience for patients. Both peaceful and combat scenery provide sight cues, such as palm trees and navy cruisers (Pearl Harbor recreations), or village scenes, Humvees, and religious buildings for Iraq simulations.
Sound cues come in various forms as well, including helicopter engines (particularly associated with Vietnam), gunfire and explosions, and human voices pleading for aid. In a simulation system known as Virtual Iraq, smell is an important component of treatment as well. One company, Envirodine Studios, provided a smell machine for Virtual Iraq. The machine can be connected to the USB port of the main operational computer. When the machine is cued, it releases eight smells which soldiers associate uniquely with Iraq and Iraqi combat: Iraqi spices, burning rubber, cordite, garbage, body odor, smoke, diesel fuel, and gunpowder.
These smells reach patients through air compressors and fans. A final component of combat simulation technology involves tactile stimulation. In order to recreate the feel and touch of a combat zone, Virtual Vietnam systems utilize subwoofers to replicate vibrations and movable seats to emulate the twisting and banking characteristic of helicopter flight. While one may debate the benefits of virtual simulation, the statistics speak for themselves: “virtual reality-based exposure therapy has led to significant reduction in PTSD….
patients reported a decrease in PTSD symptoms ranging from 15 percent to 67 percent” (Brewin 1). The success rate may be owed to the fact that many patients feel safer and less stigmatized in a virtual therapeutic environment. Both described systems (CAREN and virtual combat simulation) are based on virtual reality technology. Both systems have their limitations: CAREN in its “plateau” and the combat simulation in its enduring “approval-stage” status. But both systems also share one more undeniable, important link: healthier, happier patients:
26-year-old Ido Borovsky can now take a walk on a nerve-damaged foot, thanks to CAREN. Marine Corporal Nicholas Beberniss is no longer haunted by all-consuming guilt or battered by the deafening sound of explosions. He credits virtual combat simulation.
Brewin, Bob. “Combat Trauma Theater. ” Government Health IT: 1 p. Online. Internet. http://www. govhealthit. com/article97677-02-19-07-Print. 25 April 2007. “Virtual Reality is Therapy for Injuries. ” Yahoo! 7 News: 1 p. Online. Internet. http://au. news. yahoo. com/070218/2/12gki. html. 25 April 2007.