Mixed, virtual, augmented: the realities of therapy

There are many names out there for alternate digital realities. With all those names come even more possibilities for using these technologies for therapeutic benefit. But to understand the value of these technologies for therapists, we first need to be clear about what they are.

Virtual reality (VR) is an artificial, computer-generated simulation or recreation of a real-life environment or situation. It completely covers your field of vision using a headset.

Patient using VR in their room. Photo: C.S. Mott Children's Hospital

Patient using VR in their room. Photo: C.S. Mott Children's Hospital

Early studies have begun to point to pain management as one of the greatest values VR will have in the medical space. Non-pharmacological management of pain has obvious benefits for patients and in controlling hospital costs.

Augmented reality (AR) takes a view of the real world and adds digital information and/or data on top of it.

AR for medical education: layering digital anatomy on top of real humans.

AR for medical education: layering digital anatomy on top of real humans.

AR has been used for medical education, training, and procedural support, like needle guidance for biopsies or location of veins for medicinal injection

The way that occupational and physical therapists use SpellBound is an example of augmented reality.

Mixed reality (MR) lets the user see the real world (like AR) while also seeing believable, virtual objects (like VR). The physical characteristics of the real world are integrated into the MR experience. As an example, in the photo below the user is interacting with a blank model in real life, but the headset they’re wearing is projecting features onto the figure. This way, it both looks and feels to them like they’re interacting with a real person.

Touchable, virtual patient grounded in the real environment.

Touchable, virtual patient grounded in the real environment.

Some of our work in altering patients' rooms or the hallways leading to the operating room involves mixed reality. We think MR will be a safe way for children to engage with the hospital environment, exploring and learning through virtual objects.

Using these alternate realities to normalize a treatment or motivate treatment engagement is what we call Immersive Therapeutics™.

Immersive Therapeutics™ involves using digital experiences (like MR) to mitigate treatment, diverting attention from unpleasantness, and engaging patients with therapeutic activity that encourages healing. Examples of this include an occupational therapist using AR to motivate fine motor skill development, or a child life specialist using MR to distract during sutures.

Immersive Therapeutics™ provide therapists with a larger toolset to use with patients, particularly those who do not want to comply with treatment. For hospitals, Immersive Therapeutics™ offer a way of not only keeping procedural costs in check, but also providing positive experiences for pediatric patients and their families, which translates into satisfaction and loyalty.

In the end, the patients will be the ones that dictate which therapeutic tactics are most effective. While healing is the ultimate goal, we can’t forget how important play is in that equation for pediatric patients, and choosing tools that spark imagination and motivate through play will be essential to achieving the health outcomes and engagement hospitals and therapists work so hard to attain.


Other sources for describing VR, AR, MR: 

  • Wikipedia often has the simplest and most elegant description. I used Wikipedia a lot.
  • http://www.recode.net/2015/7/27/11615046/whats-the-difference-between-virtual-augmented-and-mixed-reality
  • https://www.thefoundry.co.uk/solutions/virtual-reality/vr-ar-mr-sorry-im-confused/ 
  • http://www.networkworld.com/article/3106205/lan-wan/understanding-the-differences-between-virtual-reality-augmented-reality-and-mixed-reality.html
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