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Clinical virtual reality – a glimpse into the future

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

A researcher who used virtual reality technology to develop revolutionary exposure treatment for US soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) believes the world is poised to see the technology in a whole new way.

Professor Albert “Skip” Rizzo, clinical psychologist and Director of Medical Virtual Reality at the University of Southern California, spent a month at the University of Otago, presenting at workshops, forums, and at a brain conference in Auckland.

He was an invited University of Otago William Evans Fellow investigating potential collaborations with fellow virtual and augmented reality researcher and host Professor Holger Regenbrecht from the Otago’s Information Science department.

While it is obvious the gaming industry has whole-heartedly embraced virtual reality technology, what is less well known is that several experts around the world, including Professors Rizzo and Regenbrecht, have also been quietly looking at adapting the technology for human good over the last two decades.

Pioneering researchers, including from Japan, Korea, Chile, Europe, the US and at Otago, have been developing their virtual and augmented technology capability in human health and quality of life projects in diverse fields including psychology, medicine, neuroscience, and physical and occupational therapy.

Functional technology has been developed for treating clinical conditions as diverse as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), autism and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD), to treating traumatic brain injuries, stroke, amputees and Alzheimer’s disease patients, and even helping people overcome a fear of public speaking.

Professor Rizzo’s research

California-based Professor Rizzo has led the field over the last years in the design and development of virtual reality systems in clinical assessment to test and train attention, memory, visuospatial abilities and executive function.

He initially worked with the US military to develop a new way of treating soldiers suffering from PTSD using exposure therapy. The clinical, interactive, virtual reality based exposure therapy tool has made a difference; the resulting data has validated the process.

Now he is examining the use of VR applications for training emotional coping skills to prepare service members for the stresses of combat before they are deployed.

War is one of the most challenging situations that a human being can experience, and treating stress at that level provides valuable insights into other form of treatments. The military-driven innovations have also now paved the way to expand combat-related immersive technology to treat trauma and anxiety disorders in the general population.

Professor Rizzo has also developed VR game systems to help with physical rehabilitation post-stroke, with traumatic brain injuries, and with prosthetic use training.

He has adapted the technology to come up with scenarios that help social interaction development for children with ADHD and those with autism. He is now aiming to apply visualizing scenarios to help with rehabilitation for people such as first responders in accidents, victims of sexual abuse, and victims traumatized in terrorist attacks.

His PTSD virtual reality-based exposure therapy received the American Psychological Association’s 2010 Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Treatment of Trauma.

Professor Rizzo is keen to further explore using virtual and augmented reality to create Virtual Patients - realistic lifelike character avatars for clinical training of novice healthcare providers in interpersonal areas such as rapport, interviewing and diagnosis, and as online healthcare support guides.

Working together

The University of Otago is also working on augmented and virtual reality projects to support healthcare, particularly in understanding motor movements and unilateral impairments like strokes, developing a mobile reporting platform targeting inflammatory bowel diseases and rheumatic arthritis, and in virtual reality simulators for electrical wheelchair users.

“Holger and I are both working on some interesting projects so it makes sense to look at what we could do together,” Professor Rizzo explained.

“Distance is no barrier at this high level capability – there’s a lot of new developments happening in both of our labs, and lots of possibilities for further extending human health innovations using our combined resources and ideas.”

He says augmented reality continues to be an exciting area of research to be in. “We’ve watched technology such as high resolution cameras in phones develop over the last decade, while at the same time mass production has bought costs down.

“Over the last 20 years, dramatic advances in the underlying VR-enabling technologies, such as computational speed, 3D graphics rendering, user interfaces, and voice recognition, have caught up with our vision, supporting the creation of low-cost, yet sophisticated, immersive VR systems that are capable of running on commodity level personal computers.

“It’s helped us enormously to develop our ideas, but as those enabling technologies and the scale of production continue to evolve and become more easily accessible to the public, the number of research questions that these technologies can potentially answer increases. The challenge is there.”

Professor Rizzo is looking forward to teaming up with Otago to work out ways of advancing those opportunities into delivering new clinical solutions, as well as collaborating on existing projects.

He noted that the University has an incredible space. “Its Augmented Reality lab is cool, the technology is state of the art, and the people are great. The work is pioneering; I look forward to coming back.”

He also has another reason for come back to New Zealand – a love of watching and playing rugby, to the point he has become a fully-fledged Otago Highlanders supporter, and an avid All Blacks follower!

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