VR, “The Ultimate Empathy Machine,” is Finally Making Strides Where it Counts

During his popular 2015 TED Talk, immersive artist, entrepreneur, and director Chris Milk suggested that virtual reality could potentially be the “ultimate empathy machine.” This is something Milk learned from experience earlier that year, when he collaborated with the United Nations on the VR film, Clouds Over Sidra, which takes you inside the life of Sidra, a 12-year-old Syrian refugee. At that point, stories of the Syrian refugee crisis dominated the news, but often failed to reach many Americans on a deeper, more human level. But one thing VR can do that the nightly news can’t (not yet, at least) is give viewers intimate access to the experiences of others, creating an immediate, almost disarmingly real understanding of another’s world. It’s as close to walking in someone else’s shoes as you can get without literally putting them on.

Milk isn’t the only one who believes that in VR, we have the potential to become better listeners, caretakers, and global citizens, using pixels and haptic tech* to tap into a shared universal experience. As enthusiasm for VR’s gaming capabilities wanes, curiosity about its applications to the fields of mental health, rehabilitation, and community-building has only grown. Dozens of projects and research studies currently under development are breaking ground in areas ranging from opioid addiction and substance abuse to physical therapy and PTSD, all of which have the cumulative effect of potentially overhauling the entire field of patient care.

Before VR was a tech conference sideshow, professor Patrick Bordnick, dean of Tulane’s School of Social Work, was exploring its therapeutic uses. Bordnick has studied addiction treatment and VR since the early ’90s, when he created an immersive VR project known colloquially as the “heroin cave,” a series of wall projections set in a sensory-controlled room where subjects could re-enact a series of role-play scenarios aimed at treating substance dependency during early stages of rehabilitation.

The team’s custom-designed VR system didn’t work like the Oculus Rift or Gear VR. Instead, it utilized goggles that transformed images projected onto the walls into a 3D HD experience. Once inside, patients could be trained, with the aid of a therapist, to identify and resist triggers. (For example, in one scenario a participant walks through a house party and bypasses a group snorting heroin.) The project is based on traditional cue-reactivity therapy, in which exposure to a predictable trigger activates a patient’s addictive behavior hoping that, through controlled exposure, patients could modify their reactions.

“When I started studying why people relapse 20 years ago, we’d bring them into the lab, show movies of users, and monitor cravings and discuss relapse,” Bordnick said. What struck him was the ineffectiveness of the initial approach. In a sterile office or research lab, subjects were far from the triggering context. If he could, somehow, put patients in a digitized version of real-world settings, he felt he might be able to better help them navigate real-world stumbles.

The prohibitive cost of VR headsets, which can run as high as $300 for a basic kit, often put them out of reach for many of his patients. His current goal is to bring his work to smartphone-based reality platforms or design an app that places users in a virtual environment during therapy. He’s also developing a range of environments, from a “heroin shooting gallery” to a cigarette-filled party, for skills-based treatment. “What we were able to show is that six months later, the people who received the skills training had the confidence to use those skills, and were even smoking less.”

Another self-proclaimed “grandfather” of VR patient care is Albert “Skip” Rizzo, Ph.D., director of Medical Virtual Reality at the Institute for Creative Technologies, and research professor at the Department of Psychiatry and School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California. There, Rizzo built a VR lab to treat brain injuries and ADHD, later approaching the school’s Institute for Creative Technologies. The Institute, funded by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, is also home to Light Stages, an innovation incubator that hosts special-effects pros and game developers, and collaborates on immersive simulation technologies for the military. (They also provided many of the visual effects for Avatar.) Rizzo worked with the team to develop Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy, or VRET, and a system called Bravemind.

An “academia-Pentagon venture,” Bravemind uses computer-generated imagery built specifically for veterans from the Afghan and Iraq conflicts to help cope with PTSD and other combat-related symptoms. Scenes include everything from Afghan villages to crowded Baghdad markets, and are accompanied by sensory stimuli like grenade explosions or subtle ground vibrations. So far, the therapy has been used in over 75 sites, including military bases, VA medical centers, and clinics across the United States.

“I was frustrated with the limitations of tools used to help recover cognitive function after traumatic incidents, like a car accident,” said Rizzo. In the early ’90s, he observed that one of his…

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