It’s a fact: virtual reality has an impact on a lot of business fields. Training, education, industry, entertainment… and the list is always growing. But for some sectors, immersive technologies are an important tool that makes a real difference. VR/AR can also serve a cause or help science driving forward. How can researchers use immersive technologies?
Visualization of cells and molecules
Researchers usually work with 2D images. But 2D images have their limits. Sometimes, scientists have difficulties identifying phenomenons happening in a cell or a molecule with conventional microscopy. This situation can lead to misunderstanding and years of questioning. Virtual reality is taking researchers in a digital environment where they literally walk around cells.
The 3D vision has several advantages for scientists. They can easily track and identify interactions within a cell, and so quickly understand its structure. VR data visualization tools, such as InViewR, can be used for drug conception too. While in the VR environment, researchers can see if proteins are interfering with the drugs that target them.
Virtual reality appears a major advancement solution for predictive medicine. To design a drug, you need to find the right shape of the molecule so that it fits inside the targeted protein. VR visualization can save time in the design of this molecule, up to 12 months in comparison to 4- 5 years. We are in the process of developing a predictive, preventive and personalized medicine with specific drug dosage for each individual.
Providing a safe environment for experiments
One of the main advantages of virtual reality is the possibility to create digital environments and simulation. It’s a great tool for conducting research experiments. Some of them can be very dangerous, using flammable composants. But being in a virtual environment with an avatar erases those risks.
The Arts & Métiers Institute of Laval, in France, built a virtual and totally safe chemistry laboratory. Called “Dactylea”, it helps conducting the Pharaoh’s serpent experiment which requires risky products. In VR, no risk of fire or exploding solutions! The researcher is safe.
These types of solutions are mainly used in the academic field. They allow students, therefore future researchers, to practice without the fear of making a mistake and thus putting themselves in danger due to a bad manipulation of products.
Tracking physiological data
One thing we are all aware of now: VR = simulation. What virtual reality brings, in comparison with a real simulation, is data. The use of VR equipment can provide interesting psychological data about the human mind. Some hardware are also capable of tracking behaviour changes of the body. This is where immersive tech can help research.
During a virtual simulation, we can observe the user and analyse its gesture, like how he interacts with the objects. This is something you can do in a real situation. But virtual reality also allows to collect and measure other types of data such as pulse, body temperature and blood pressure. This data can give information about how someone reacts in front of a specific situation. Equipment like body sensors or haptic devices like the Teslasuit can be used for that purpose.
Researchers have also sensed the potential of another technology: eye-tracking. In some VR headsets, like the HTC Vive Pro Eye, there is an eye-tracking device that allows to follow the eyes of the users and know what he is looking at during the simulation. For researchers, it’s a way to understand what’s behind users’ reactions and behaviors and to get insights about the human mind.
Treatment for mental and physical disorders
One of the first applications of virtual reality in patient treatment was for mental illness, more specifically phobia. VR was the best tool because it makes it possible to face people with their fears: placing a person who is afraid of heights at the top of a building or putting a spider in the hand of someone suffering from arachnophobia. This also works for people with anxiety and social disorders. That’s what we call exposure therapy.
For some time now, immersive technologies have also proven their efficiency for chronic pain treatment. Mindmaze is a pioneering company that uses virtual reality for research in digital therapeutics. Virtual reality is making its way in medical treatment, through neurosciences. Putting patients in simulations has the ability to deceive the brain. A French research project uses VR for rehabilitation of tetraplegic people.
The project focuses on the rehabilitation of upper muscles. It is based on this principle: when you try to move your hand, there is an intention that starts in your brain and turns into a nerve impulse that activates or deactivates a muscle. When you are in tetraplegia, there is a lesion in this passage. ICEBERG is using virtual reality to create a simulation: it projects a hand in the headset. The movement deceives the brain and allows the connection between the brain and the final gesture. There is a huge potential for rehabilitation, and the results of this experiment are very positive.
Building sensibilization & empathy
Sensibilizing people about an illness can be part of a patient’s treatment. The feeling of being understood can help him to accept himself better. How can virtual reality help in the sensibilization process for the general public? VR projects have the ambition to put people in the shoes of the patient who suffers from specific disorders.
SenseGlove together with Procter & Gamble Health created a sensibilisation campaign about people suffering from nerve damage. The goal of this campaign was to increase awareness and build empathy in the general public as well as enable doctors to identify the damage before it progresses. Neuropathy is very disabling: numbness, tingling, muscle weakness. To recreate these sensations, Procter & Gamble Health used SenseGlove haptic force-feedback gloves.
The haptic technology allows to feel digital objects and interact with them in a natural way: feel the shape, density, vibrations physically. For that specific case the SenseGlove was set to provide two different experiences: natural interaction with virtual objects and recreation of the symptoms of nerve damage. By putting on the gloves, healthy people could first experience the interactions that felt right, and then the inconveniences of neuropathy and the frustration of patients suffering from it. During the second experience, they have troubles grabbing objects, they don’t feel the touch, they let virtual objects fall. This way, they really see what people with nerve damage are living with. In this case, VR is a powerful tool.
Researchers are invited to VRDays Europe 6 to talk about the possibilities of immersive technologies in the scientific field. VR: Tool for Research explains how to set and design virtual experiments.