Sunday, March 05, 2006

Double Vision

I continue to learn about how virtual reality devices are being used in cognitive therapy, physical therapy, and even pain management. As previously noted in this blog, virtual reality devices have a communitarian dimension, because they can be used to treat social phobias, such as the fear of speaking in public or interacting with others in informal social situations like parties. But VR also is used in many other clinical situations, some of which have import for creating a more inclusive basis for accommodating a greater range of citizens.

Because computer generated imagery offers a richer testing model than traditional paper and pencil exercises, it offers an invaluable aid to brain researchers. Certianly, exposure to specific and consistent forms of multi-sensory or three-dimensional stimuli improves neurological mapping. Although spatial puzzle problems have been used to problematic ends by researchers studying gender difference, such as in the case of the famous toy-stacking experiment, such puzzles have great potential to improve scientists' understanding of brain injury and recovery.

VR technology has been used for physical therapy as well. For example, wheelchair users with "visual neglect" can learn to drive more safely after negotiating virtual courses. But VR also offers the possibility of creating transformative environments for the physically handicapped. The Laboratory for Innovation in Rehabilitation Technology (LIRT) can place disabled people in virtual mountain vistas or at the center of virtual soccer fields during their physical therapy, where they can interact with virtual birds or virtual balls during the therapy session.

Finally, VR offers distracting sensory information that can assist with pain management. For young test subjects, a virtual reality scuba game provided by the Believe in Tomorrow National Children's Foundation is apparently a great improvement over merely squeezing a rubber ball during painful hospital procedures. Hunter Hoffman was an important pioneer in this field of research, and according to a recent NPR story on such clinical use of video games, Ben Sawyer of Games for Health has been a significant popularizer of these technologies. Even the media artist Rebecca Allen of UCLA has contributed to this effort to reduce pain by immersing the patient in vivid and interactive technologies.

Because I was born with a rare ocular condition known as Brown's syndrome, I actually had 3-D therapy as a child during the nineteen seventies. I still remember the experience well. After each one of several eye surgeries, I went for weekly "eye exercises" to an office full of machines equipped with viewers. I would spend the time tracing images or doing other hand-eye coordination tasks that were designed to improve my spatial abilities and discourage the double-vision or mono-vision from which I periodically suffered. Being good behaviorists, the assistants gave us Starburst candies if we performed well on the day's tasks. Such vision therapy is apparently still practiced today. I wonder if both my persistent interest and my persistent skepticism about virtual reality technology can be traced to those early experiences with incipient 3-D.

Although I've abandoned eye exercises and now wear a prism in my glasses, my eyes still don't quite track together. Thus I was unable to fully appreciate the Magic Eye craze of the nineties, and the old-time stereoscopes that nostalgia buffs treasure don't work on me. However, those who have good binocular vision might enjoy this 3-D stereoscopic cell phone apparatus from Japan!

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