VR will make the unspoken spoken.
Presented at TEDx ARUCAD-Kyrenia, Cyprus.
Creative technologies, such as VR, can offer positive and lasting benefits, often offering limitless possibilities to make us healthier and more productive. Howard shares innovative VR solutions that are helping people around the world to relieve pain, reduce their phobias, and adopt healthier lifestyles. VR has the potential to solve our most challenging health and social problems.
The VR revolution has already begun – VR is here. But it’s still early, which gives us a good window to think about the technology and how we want to best apply it. As we do this, I suggest we can learn from other technology examples, like the ubiquitous smartphone, that bring many benefits but also enable many things that are having a negative impact on our society. VR experiences are far more powerful and persuasive than a cell phone. Are We ready for the benefits and the challenges that VR will bring?
Virtual Reality Is Here – Are You Ready?
TEDx – Kyrenia, Cyprus
I’d like to ask you to close your eyes for a moment. With your eyes closed, try to picture this room in as much detail as you can.
Now open your eyes and look around. Do you notice any gaps between what you recalled and what your senses tell you now? How accurate were you?
This example gives a glimpse of how we process the world around us. Humans are sensing beings, and our brains handle the flood of data by constantly shifting attention according to immediate priorities. This leaves a lot of gaps. In life, we often cover over these gaps with best guesses…or biases.
Technology helps us fill in our gaps. Smartphones are a great example. We use phones like a second brain – to find our way, keep us productive, and store our memories. The smartphone has had a huge impact on society – lots of good, but we’re also dealing with some troubling unforeseen consequences, like cyberbullying and the phone’s influence on our elections.
Smartphones give a useful comparison to think about the technology I’ve been working with for 25 years, virtual reality, or VR.
If you’re new to virtual reality, it looks like this. [slide 1] VR reaches beyond the mind, into the senses and the body. Getting immersed in a virtual world feels like being physically transported to a completely different place. VR engages your body’s sense of itself in space, called proprioception. Virtual experiences feel real and we remember them more like a place we’ve been than something we look at.
VR is unlike any technology that has come before. It has the potential for personal and social transformations that will surpass the impact of the smartphone. There are many benefits – but there are open questions, and today too few people have enough experience in VR to be smart VR consumers. I want to offer a framework to think about VR, and I’ll use my smartphone to help unpack how VR does its magic.
[VIDEO OF COOL]
I create virtual worlds for education and therapy. I’ll focus on virtual worlds I’ve created to relieve pain. This one is called COOL. Cool takes you on journey through a landscape of seasons and crystal caves – playing paintball with otters. Hospitals are using COOL to reduce the pain of procedures like wound care, and to improve recovery after surgery. Instead of passively fixating on pain, VR activates the mind and helps it access the ability to relax, focus and engage. VR is not just reducing pain; it also can reduce the opioids people need and lower the cost of care.
We can use an fMRI scanner to see how the brain handles pain with and without VR. [SLIDE 4:] Pain activates a number of areas of the brain we refer to as the pain matrix, including the insula, thalamus and the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC. You can see those areas active here. With VR the pain matrix is much less active – and activity shifts to areas like the frontal cortex – associated with positive things like concentration and problem solving. This fMRI shows VR has a large effect on the brain, that corroborates the level of pain relief that patients report.
[VIDEO OF GLOW]
This is Glow – adding hand tracking and a heart rate sensor to makes Glow responsive to you. The changes in your heart rate control these fireflies dancing all around you. If your heart rate is elevated the fireflies just hang out. But if you relax and lower your heart rate, the fireflies reward you and let you play with them.
This biofeedback connection gives insight into what’s going on inside you with pain and stress, so you can learn to control it. Glow motivates patients lying in a hospital bed to move. It also helps people change their response to chronic pain and we’re even seeing VR help patients finally get free of long-term opioid use.
Making virtual worlds responsive and personalized opens many new avenues for therapy in the hospital and at home.
While I’ve been working on these healthcare solutions, I’ve watched many people experience VR. This has given me an intriguing window into people and the technology. Here’s what I’ve seen:
- [Did that really happen?] Virtual experiences can be manipulated to blur the boundary in your memory between things that happened in VR and the real world.
- [I’m sure I saw it! (Sorry, you definitely didn’t.)] Sometimes people get so excited in VR, that later they will say they or saw or did things that were not in the virtual world. Their emotions filled in the gaps.
- [I did that! (Well, no, you didn’t.)] VR can tinker with your sense of agency. Coincidence, exuberance, or active imagination can lead people to assume they had control over some part of the VR experience, they in fact had no control over.
These examples illustrate how VR goes straight to the brain and the body – and our emotions.
Emotions are born from a complex interplay between brain and body. We have 5 external senses, and 100k sensors inside the body constantly updating the brain. Emotions are the brain’s interpretation of these signals and the labels we attach to those feelings like: I’m sad, I’m in pain, I’m in danger. VR intervenes by hijacking the emotional signals to the brain. Bypassing our conscious gatekeeper gives a boost to VR pain therapy, where patients get immersed and just find themselves motivated to do it without self-limiting.
To put it all together: The physical and sensory experience of VR is powerful and unique because it: extends our capabilities, can change activity in the brain, can be personalized and responsive; directly affects us at an emotional level. The result is a new high impact transformative media.
Let’s contrast this with my phone:
The channel of information passing between me and the phone is very limited. The phone offers no way for ME to apply all my physical abilities or finely tuned senses.
And my experience of my phone is as an object outside of me. The limited ways I can use the phone, limit the phone’s ability to act on me.
There are billions of people and things on the other side of this phone pushing to break through this small screen to influence me. If a phone provides a small pipeline between me and it, VR is a super highway. What will happen when that highway connects those messages directly to our brains and emotions?
Children alive today will be the first generation to grow up with virtual media. How will it change their development? Mobile phones have had a huge impact on our society – what will be the impact of millions of personalized, targeted, downloadable virtual worlds?
I’ve already experienced virtual worlds that reinforce narrow stereotypes, or skew reporting of news events. VR is more potent than video on the phone or fake news on TV because we will recall our virtual experiences like places and events we’ve really experienced. Whether those virtual worlds ended up based due to intention or naivete – whatever the reason – we can and must make sure we get VR right.
VR helps us see what is unseen inside of us, and access what we can’t otherwise access. Numerous examples show that embodying a virtual avatar of a different race or gender can influence our sense of identity in a matter of minutes. VR makes the unconscious conscious. It can increase empathy or shift group identification for better or for worse. VR will make the unspoken spoken.
I’ve shared some of the positive opportunities for virtual reality and I’m extremely optimistic about the value VR will bring to healthcare, education and many other areas. To be totally clear, I believe VR will help us solve some of our greatest challenges in physical and mental health. But we need to go there with care. As budding consumers of virtual media, ultimately you will have the power to choose how you will or won’t use it. Become a smart consumer of VR. Meet this future with eyes open and let’s make wise choices.