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Columbia Engineering Professor Steven K. Feiner and Ajoy Fernandes MS'16 have developed a method of combating virtual reality (VR) sickness that can be applied to consumer head-worn VR displays, such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Sony PlayStation VR, and Google Cardboard. Their approach dynamically, yet subtly, changes the user's field of view (FOV) in response to visually perceived motion, as the user virtually traverses an environment while remaining physically stationary. The study showed that by strategically and automatically manipulating FOV, the degree of VR sickness experienced by participants can be significantly reduced. Furthermore, the researchers accomplished this without decreasing the participants' sense of presence in the virtual environment, and without the majority of the participants even being aware of the intervention. The study was presented at IEEE 3DUI 2016 (IEEE Symposium on 3D User Interfaces) on March 20, where it won the Best Paper Award.

"2016 is the year of VR and it's estimated that over 200 million VR headsets will be sold by 2020," says Computer Science Professor Feiner, who directs the Computer Graphics and User Interfaces Lab. "But VR sickness, which has symptoms similar to motion sickness, poses a barrier for many users of this immersive technology. People who experience VR sickness will often stop using their headsets, as they feel nauseated and uncomfortable."

Feiner and Fernandes developed an approach that focused on the VR user's FOV, changing it in a way that many participants found imperceptible. "I was aware of work on change blindness -- a concept in perceptual psychology that explains why people sometimes do not notice what would seem to be an obvious change in a scene," explains Fernandes, who himself has suffered from VR sickness. "So I wondered if this could be applied to VR: could we change a participant's FOV without them noticing?"

The team specifically targeted scenarios in which users move in the virtual environment in a way that intentionally differs from how they move in the real world. These include games in which they are physically standing or sitting on a couch in their living room, while walking, running, driving, or flying in the virtual world. In these scenarios, the visual motion cues that users see are at odds with the physical motion cues that they receive from their inner ears' vestibular system, the cues that provide us with our sense of motion, equilibrium, and spatial orientation. When the visual and vestibular cues conflict, users can feel quite uncomfortable, even nauseated.

In many cases, decreasing the field of view can decrease these symptoms. But decreasing FOV can also decrease the user's sense of presence in the virtual environment, making the experience less compelling. Feiner and Fernandes focused on subtly decreasing FOV in situations when a larger FOV would be likely to cause VR sickness (when the mismatch between physical and virtual motion increases) and restoring it when VR sickness is less likely to occur (when the mismatch decreases). They developed software that functions as a pair of "dynamic FOV restrictors" and can partially obscure each eye's view with a virtual soft-edged cutout. They then determined how much the user's field of view should be reduced, and the speed with which it should be reduced and then restored, and tested the system.

Their multi-day user study divided 30 voluntary participants into two groups. One group explored a VR environment without the dynamic FOV restrictors on one day and with the restrictors on a second day. This order was reversed for the second group. When study participants used the FOV restrictors, they felt more comfortable and stayed in the virtual environment longer than they did without the restrictors. Two kinds of restrictors were used, one of which was designed to be more subtle than the other. Most of the participants who used the more subtle restrictors did not notice them, and all those who did notice them said they would prefer to have them in future VR experiences.

Feiner and Fernandes plan next to look into how FOV restrictors could help acclimate users to VR experiences. For this study, they used soft-edged, circular cutouts and now want to explore using different cutout shapes and textures. They are also interested in going beyond their current study, in which they reduced FOV as a simple function of speed and angular velocity, to instead see the effect of reducing FOV based on parameters such as heart rate or optical flow.

"Virtual reality has the potential to profoundly change how we interact with people, machines, and information," Feiner says. "It is critical that the experience be both comfortable and compelling, and we think we've found a way."

Feiner and Fernandes' team, which has filed a provisional patent through Columbia Technology Ventures, included Luis Tolosa and Matthieu Gavaudan who helped coordinate and run the user study, and Carmine Elvezio and Mengu Sukan who gave feedback and suggestions.

 

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Dr Jamil El-Imad, inventor and virtual reality expert, shares his views on how virtual reality can treat mental health conditions and how it can democratise wellbeing.

Imagine you are sitting in your home, wearing headsets. You close your eyes and when you open them after few moments, you can see a beautiful beach on Easter Islands along the Pacific Coast.  Or perhaps hear the fluttering of prayer flags in a monastery nestled somewhere in the Himalayas.

Created by Dr Jamil El-Imad, an inventor, entrepreneur and research fellow at London’s Imperial College, the Dream Machine produces an immersive experience for mindfulness training to help treat mental health conditions such as anxiety, stress-related disorders and phobias.

The Dream Machine provides virtual meditation by using a VR headset combined with a mobile EEG headset to monitor brain activity, along with other wearable sensors to monitor ECG signals, breathing patterns and any trace of physical activity. The EEG front signals are processed using advanced algorithms to gauge the level of user concentration and relaxation in real time. At the end of the session, the patient is given a recording of how long they were able to concentrate along with a score, which can be improved, essentially training people to concentrate and focus on therapeutic mindfulness.

The idea of using therapeutic mindfulness as an alternative to treat mental health conditions has gained credence in the past few years. New evidence suggests that it can be useful in treating anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Dr El-Imad points out that VR technology can help in democratising these experiences as well.

“You don’t have to be rich and go to these exotic places to meditate and relax. You can be living in a in a one-bedroom flat in a polluted and congested city but still have access to these experiences and learn to control your mind and feel positive,” he says.

In fact, it can be used to cure the attention deficit disorder especially among children. “It is a big problem among children and this can be a fun way to teach them how to concentrate.”

With mobile phones, tablets, wearables and other digital devices overtaking modern life, even adults are susceptible, he adds.

Challenges ahead

Dr El-Imad thinks we are still quite far off from using such technologies within acute mental health settings as it is still not fully digitised, which should be a prerequisite, before moving on to these sophisticated technologies. Another reason, he states, is that the status quo of using pills to treat mental health conditions remains prevalent, and people haven’t thought of doing things differently until recently.

Read the full article here.

 

Image credit: careworks.co.uk

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I've been meditating, off and on, for the past 14 years. The technique I learned in meditation class many years ago is old-school and austere: Find a place to sit, close your eyes, feel your feet on the floor, and focus on the in-and-out breath at the tip of your nose. No music, no mantras, just the moment-by-moment struggle of bringing your attention back to breathing every time your mind wanders away (which is just about every time you breathe). The point, and the challenge, is to train your mind to let go of distraction, to detach from thoughts, to simply “be here now.”

Mindfulness meditation is a welcome (some say necessary) respite from the hustle and stress of modern life, and from the incessant pings, buzzes, and chimes of personal technology.

So I was intrigued when I received an invitation from the folks at Oculus, the virtual reality shop at Facebook, to test out the latest application for this booming technology: guided meditation. I wondered: If being mindful requires disengaging from the diversions of modern life, can we truly meditate while mind-melding with state-of-the-art computer processing power? Is it possible to “be here now” if that “here” is a digitally-synthesized someplace else?

At Oculus’ pop-up showroom in New York City, I was first given a quick tour of the capabilities of their high-end Rift system. I was menaced by a life-size Tyrannosaurus Rex (cowering in virtual terror as the beast stomped past/through me) and dropped onto the ledge of an 80-story Times Square skyscraper (dropping reflexively to hands and knees and crawling backwards to safety).

RELATED: A Meditation to Start Your Day

After the stress test warm up, I strapped on the Samsung Gear VR, for a downshift into Oculus’ meditation offerings.

The Guided Meditation VR app, developed by Cubicle Ninjas, gives you a choice of environment, voiceover, and chill-out music. I picked a fall foliage setting called “Autumnshade” to start, and the “Relaxation” audio track.

The 360-degree view was splendid: Crisp brown leaves floated from trees between shafts of golden sunlight. In the narration, an English woman likened our thoughts to hummingbirds, and indeed, my mind was flitting from voice to scene (with multiple perspectives available at the push of a button) and back again, with nary a thought of my breath.

I switched to a tropical seaside setting (“Costa del Sol”), with waves sloshing on the shore, then toggled again to an icy mountain (“Snow Peak”): Blood red sky reflected in an iridescent blue lake. Somewhere behind me I heard a crunching sound, like the calving of icebergs (or the footfall of a hungry snow leopard). Each time I picked a new setting, the device asked me to press my finger to a sensor to measure my heart rate, part of the app’s biofeedback feature. I started out around 76 beats per minute, and hovered in that range throughout the experience.

RELATED: Wait, Congress Has a Meditation Guru?

I shifted one last time to a sunny bamboo grove (“Hanna Valley”), leaves swaying in a gentle breeze, a pagoda in the near distance. There was even a pudgy panda dozing on the rocks behind me to add to the snoozy vibe.

Now that I’d found a calm setting, I turned on the lulling “Loving Compassion” voiceover, which was much more conducive to relaxation than the hummingbird talk, and more in keeping with my own experience practicing loving-kindness meditation. A voice urged me to think about a loved one with the following recitation:

May you be safe / May you be peaceful / May you be healthy / May you live with ease and wellbeing.

Good food for thought, yet I still found myself dazzled by the scenery, looking out and around rather than inward.

My Oculus friends urged me to try another app, so I dove into Perfect Beach, developed by nDreams, which offers a choice of four seaside views with an audio track. The most interesting feature here is that the app lets you select a lower torso (customizable by sex and skin tone) as part of your view, presumably to help you locate your floating head in the VR space. That idea makes sense, given that groundedness is one of the starting points of most any meditation practice, though I found it gave me yet one more thing to look at: undulating waves throwing flecks of golden sun, plus a pair of nicely tanned legs and muscular pecs, just below my line of sight.

Health.com: Meditation Might Work Better than Painkillers for Chronic Low Back Pain

After an admittedly brief tour, I yanked off the headset and defogged my glasses. The verdict: Is virtual reality immersive? Of course. Diverting? For sure. Is it relaxing? It would be, if you had enough time to steep in the experience.

Is it meditative? That’s a tough one, and it depends on one’s definition of meditation. If by “meditation” you mean getting outside of yourself for a few minutes to zone out, decompress, and escape, then virtual reality would do the trick. If you’re new to meditation, and don’t have access to a class or a teacher, and you’re looking to learn some of the basics of a guided practice like loving-kindess, an app like Guided Meditation VR (as a kind of jacked-up audio program) would help.

But if you’re trying to meditate in the more orthodox, hard-way-in style—to tune in rather than out; to be here, right now; to wake up into reality—you run into something of a conundrum. It seems that a technology that pries your eyes and ears wide open to absorb as much sensory input as possible is working at cross-purposes with a discipline that asks you to forgo distraction, to close your eyes and direct your attention inward.

Health.com: Memory Failing You? Study Suggests Meditation May Help

Oculus’ VR meditation is a fun trip, no doubt, but if I could design a setting, it might look and sound like the classroom where I first learned how to sit: careworn wood floors, mismatched chairs, a rattling air conditioner, with a teacher at the front of the room offering terse instruction and then… silence. Maybe this dazzling technology, confident enough in its verisimilitude, could also be humble enough to slip into the background, so you’d have no qualms about missing out if you just closed your eyes, and tuned in to the real.

 

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Virtual Reality headsets like Samsung Gear, Google Cardboard and Oculus Rift might seem more suited to the gaming industry, but healthcare providers are finding a use for them as well.

VR headsets are popping up in clinical studies across the globe, in projects ranging from pain control to stress relief to physical and behavioral therapy. Researchers see the technology as a tool to “train the brain” to reinforce good habits and get rid of old ones.

VR “has proven over the past couple of years that it can completely change your … perception of the world,” says David Rhew, MD, Samsung’s chief medical officer and head of healthcare and fitness. “This could be a very interesting and very powerful non-narcotic adjunct” for many different therapies.

At Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, Brennan Spiegel, MD, MSHS, is launching the largest VR-based clinical study to date, focused on applying the technology to in-patient pain management, narcotic use, hospital length of stay and patient satisfaction. He’s working with AppliedVR, a Los Angeles-based mHealth company (Cedars-Sinai is an investor in the company) and one of the leaders in bringing VR technology to healthcare.

“There are many potential opportunities [in VR therapy] that we should be looking at,” says Spiegel, a gastroenterologist who’has treated more than 300 patients with VR so far. An earlier, smaller study, he says, found that VR technology reduced a patient’s pain level by about 25 percent when compared to watching a relaxation video.

Spiegel, director of health services research for Cedars-Sinai and a professor of medicine and public health at UCLA, sees Cedars-Sinai’s Virtual Reality Consult Service as a potential pharmacy for physicians, where they can choose from a variety of VR sessions and prescribe to patients, much like someone might choose a movie from Netflix.

He calls it “dreaming with your eyes open.”

Others experimenting with VR in pain management include the Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas, Stanford Health Care, Harborview Burn Center in Seattle and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. According to Rhew, some projects have focused on using VR to combat substance abuse issues, while others have targeted anxiety in children, Alzheimer’s and motor skills and functionality for stroke patients and those with spinal cord injuries.

“This could be how yoga is adapted in people’s lifestyles,” says Rhew. “I really think of it as a form of treatment that can be adapted to any number of” medical issues.

Such a treatment, however, is not without its drawbacks. Both Rhew and Spiegel say it’s possible to overuse VR, to the point that a patient can become desensitized or develop vertigo or other, different behavioral issues.

“VR, in essence, hijacks the brain; people lose a certain sense of control in VR,” says Spiegel. “We do need to realize that it is not all fun and games.”

That said, Spiegel has seen instances where VR has helped physicians uncover other, underlying issues with a patient. One woman who started crying when viewing a VR session in which she threw balls at a stuffed bear eventually was diagnosed with PTSD. Another with severe abdominal pain thought to be caused by anorexia or Irritable Bowel Syndrome showed no reaction to pain-relieving VR treatments, prompting doctors to try other treatments. They eventually diagnosed a separate, life-threatening medical issue.

According to Bloomberg, VR was discovered some 50 years ago by accident. Tom Furness, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Washington and Air Force veteran, is credited with first using the technology. He saw the potential for home entertainment, though at that time it cost more than $800 and offered little variety.

One particular group was very interested in the technology, however.

“The dentists loved it because their patients weren’t complaining,” Furness told Bloomberg. “The experience distracted children from their fear of injections, drilling and fillings.”

With VR sets entering the mainstream as a popular gaming and entertainment device, the price point has gone down considerably. And companies like AppliedVR, DeepStream VR, Magic Leap, Google, HTC and Samsung are finding interest from a healthcare industry dealing with, among other things, high costs for pain management and relief and the burgeoning epidemic of opioid addiction.

“This has potential to treat pain in a way that doesn’t require [medication],” says Spiegel, who gets text messages almost every day from patients or caregivers of patients who are dealing with pain and want to try something that doesn’t come in a pill, liquid or injection.

 

Image credit: mhealthintelligence.com

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Augmented reality (AR) is the use of displays, cameras, and sensors to overlay digital information onto the real world. In contrast to Virtual reality (VR), which creates an entirely new world, AR allows us to bring the most useful information from the digital realm and projects it onto the environment surrounding us.

Let's explore some of the augmented reality apps that are revolutionising different aspects of healthcare in the UK... 

Paediatrics

Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool, UK has launched a new augmented reality tablet app for children to entertain, educate, and distract the hospital's young children. In Alder Play, available on iOS and Android, children can choose an animated avatar who will appear on the app as they visit different parts of the hospital and offer them entertainment, information, and support, as well as challenges they can complete to unlock new content. 

The app was designed to alter a child's experience in the hospital.

Mental health

Saagara – Better Life and Mental Health through Augmented Reality

Saagara is a company that developed a full range of augmented reality healthcare apps for wellbeing, mental and physical health. The apps cover:

  • Stress relief
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Breathing lessons
  • Weight loss
  • Improved sleeping

Dementia 

'A Walk Through Dementia' features three everyday situations. In each, we demonstrate symptoms that pose challenges to people with dementia.

Presented in virtual reality, you’ll look at everyday life through a new lens. You may be familiar with some of the symptoms you’ll experience, others may surprise you. 

This app was developed by Alzheimer’s Research UK, guided by people living with different forms of dementia. They were all keen to help you understand what everyday life can be like for them.

Blood tests

Many people have a great fear of blood tests mainly because they are afraid that the nurse or phlebotomist does not find the vein at the first time, but it will be a lengthy and torturous procedure.

AccuVein uses AR by using a handheld scanner that projects over skin and shows nurses and doctors where veins are in the patients’ bodies. Luciano estimates that it’s been used on more than 10 million patients, making finding a vein on the first stick 3.5x more likely.

Mobility 

Glasschair, a new application developed for Google Smart Glass at the Technical University of Munich, offers hands-free operation to wheelchair-bound individuals. This could be a real boon to amputees or those who have lost the use of their hands due to injury or disease.
Linked to the wheelchair through an adapter and a Bluetooth connection, the app enables chair control via intuitive head movements and voice commands.

 

Image credit: newcrosshealthcare.com

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