Strap on an Oculus Rift headset and find yourself in another world. Immersive experiences are great for games and even business applications, but what about health? Researchers are now examining the benefits of virtual reality for both mental health, overall well-being and relaxation techniques.
A New Mass Medium
VR technology has been around for decades, but only in recent years has it become a form of mass media, with headset shipments topping 1 million units for the first time in 2017, according to Canalys. Manufacturers, meanwhile, have introduced devices that are ever more eye-popping. HTC’s latest VR video player, Vive, for instance, has dual OLED displays with 78 percent greater resolution than the previous model, The Verge reported.
As VR becomes more powerful and ubiquitous, its potential for supporting health increases. One possible application is treating post-traumatic stress disorder. As reported in Psychological Medicine, researchers reviewed 285 studies in which VR technology was used to treat mental illnesses such as anxiety and schizophrenia. The authors noted that VR treatment can reduce anxiety using relaxation techniques (soothing music, for example), and concluded that “VR has the potential to transform the assessment, understanding and treatment of mental health problems.”
The Great Outdoors
If the benefits of virtual reality are seen in mental health treatment, what about overall wellness? It’s long been established that going outdoors can boost well-being. For example, a 2016 University of Queensland study in Scientific Reports found that people who visited green spaces had lower blood pressure and lower rates of depression.
Software developers are taking advantage of this link by creating VR environments that can relax users with music, animations and real or simulated natural environments. For instance, exVRience relaxation takes users through live-action 360-degree shots of Australian beaches, lagoons and waterfalls; Perfect offers a range of simulated mountain, sea and winter landscapes; and Nature Treks VR allows users to create their own relaxing simulated natural environments.
The Drawbacks of VR
There are some potential issues, however, when it comes to VR technology and nature. One is the lack of clinical data showing that VR experiences can be as effective as actually being in natural surroundings; this may come in the near future as application use is studied more.
Another concern is whether or not people will replace taking a walk in the woods with strapping on a VR headset.
Photographer and panoramic filmmaker Thomas Hayden thinks that isn’t a real worry because he sees VR as something that will inspire people to eventually seek out real nature, just like nature documentaries have done for nearly a century.
“VR places the viewer into an experience,” Hayden told Sierra. “It’s an incredible use of technology to inspire people who might never get to see Mount Everest or the Grand Canyon to realize that our natural areas need protecting.”
Anyone for Virtual Tennis?
Aside from de-stressing in the virtual outdoors, headsets could benefit users by getting them to exercise. Developers are taking a cue from Nintendo’s Wii Sports — which allows gamers to play simulated tennis and other sports — by using VR to create more immersive sports game environments. Workout and sports apps such as BOXVR, Knockout League and Sparc challenge players to move their bodies to defeat virtual opponents or complete an exercise regimen. Zwift is a popular interactive cycling simulator in which players use indoor trainers in front of video screens, and it has also teased a VR edition.
So while VR headsets have often been pigeonholed as gaming devices, they’re becoming powerful therapeutic, relaxation and fitness tools. If you haven’t tried one out yet, there’s no time like the present.