Can Oculus Rift Become an Effective Instrument for Medical Research?

British government is planning to apply Oculus Rift for training doctors in real-front situations. This technology can contribute greatly to assisting them in getting prepared to what it can be like in the war circumstances both professionally, mentally and psychologically. In this sense virtual reality headset like Oculus Rift can turn out to be a hugely effective tool in medical training.

Collette Johnson works for Plextek, electronic desing consultancy company, which is responsible for the project. She says “When someone’s been hit by an explosive and the foot’s been blown off, you want to make sure the pallor on the face is correct; you want to stop the bleeding. We wanted to make sure it was life-like, the breathing, the way you can put a tourniquet on. We needed something that made people feel like they were in the situation.”

The project itself is somewhat reminiscent of a simulator. The virtual environment looks this way: a hot, sandy town somewhere in the East, probably Afghanistan. Everything around reminds of the wartime: shots, bangs, explosures, etc. A viewer must beware all these hazards while performing his medical work. A great focus is made on providing the most realistic environment possible, as the project is aimed at doctors, who have never been in such situations before. Needless to say what a great importance this research provides and what outstanding results can be achieved if the realization of the idea succeeds.

Albert Rizzo, who works upon several projects of U.S. Department of Defence and the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, believes that such virtual environments can make a person more enduring and persevering. “Within each episode, it’s sort of like instead of watching Band of Brothers on the couch, you’re in it. And the event is actually drawn from the kinds of stories we hear from our PTSD population, the things that haunt them. The death of a child. Seeing women beaten. Seeing somebody laying in the road but not being able to go help them for fear that a bomb is attached to them,” Rizzo says.

However, a significant difference between Rizzo’s project and the British one is that the first suggests a presence of a mentor, that is, a person who can watch and guard trainee’s actions and correct them. “He’ll walk out from behind a tree in one environment. He’ll show up in the front seat of the Humvee,” Rizzo describes. “And he walks up and walks you through the types of emotional resilience training activities that have been found to be beneficial.”

Another aspect of research is that nobody knows for sure what happens if someone without previous experience is facing such virtual reality. Psychological consequences are yet unclear, but scientists suggest that the person can actually be traumatized (learning theory). “I don’t believe that simply presenting somebody with what they’re going to face is all that helpful in and of itself,” Rizzo comments. “But I believe that if you’re going to do that, it’s better to err on the ethical side of not just exposing people to these things, but giving them the tools to better deal with it if it does happen in the real world.”

Even with the most realistically shown traumas and bleedings it would still be immensely difficult in real situations. Again, psychological aspects appear. Just imagine what it would be like for the doctor to treat his friend, because doctors and soldiers in war circimstances work closely together and become friends. Emotional stability is no longer present. Seeing anyone getting injured or killed is already immense stress, let alone the death or injury of a close friend. Meanwhile, there’s a variety of other factors, which were not taken into account, but which were influential.

Collette Johnson explains that her team is working hard on all these issues. “We want to understand how [medics] go into that situation and how they deal with increasing amounts of stress in the battlefield. We don’t have the noise that comes in, we don’t have the gunfire, we don’t have the uncertainty, but in this simulator we can put them in real stress,” she believes.

The first results are already appearing. Johnson mentions that developers themselves are experiencing hard times, seeing all the wounds and blood. Still, their intentions are to make everything most realistic. “Some of the people who had this experience said, ‘This is really real.’ I think they were expecting much more of a gaming environment,” Johnson concludes. “And that was a real positive for us, because we didn’t want it to feel like a game.”