After decades of technological and economic barriers, the long-touted promise of virtual reality finally appears to be attaining some real world viability.
As consumer-level VR headsets like the Sony Morpheus, the Samsung Gear VR, and the Oculus Rift all edge closer to their mainstream consumer launches over the next year, and as content production for these devices ramps up — from VR-enhanced cinematic experiences, to immersive video games, to applications in fields ranging from construction, design, and commerce — it’s becoming clear that virtual reality isn’t simply the next-fancier digital entertainment platform. The bounds of this technology, its versatility and functional range, are only beginning to be charted.
One of the aspects of VR that’s hardest to convey without actually strapping on a headset and diving in is the immersive, transportive quality of the experience. A fine-tuned system of stereoscopic imaging, motion and depth detection, and enough CPU horsepower to convincingly bestow a sense of “presence” all combine to create what feels like an entrance to a distinct, and distinctly different, environment — that is, VR is less about conveying a sense of realism than it is about carving out new realities.
This distinction is especially important in the advance of an intriguing realm of VR development, the treatment of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
According to figures from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, chronic anxiety affects more than 40 million adults, with only about a third of them receiving treatment. The sources of anxiety are many and varied — genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events all play contributing roles — and the treatments are similarly diverse. Alongside advances in medical and pharmaceutical treatments, we’ve seen a rise in holistic measures over the past few decades: yoga, meditation, deep breathing, and if a burgeoning trend among developers bears out, virtual reality.
Techniques like virtual reality exposure therapy, employed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, as well as various phobias and anxiety disorders by immersing patients in various simulated environments, have been in development among medical professionals since the early ’90s. And a wave of VR experiments in meditation are emerging: A selection of calm-inducing environments are ready for download via the Guided Mediation VR portal, and Babson College student Nina Vir, a competitor in last October’s HackingArts hackathon at MIT, presented a similar VR meditation concept called NiVRana.
One of the most promising extensions of this movement toward virtual tranquillity is “Deep,” a game (of sorts) developed by Dublin-based game designer Owen Harris, in collaboration with Dutch artist Niki Smit. Using a VR headset in combination with a strap-on peripheral controller that wraps around the belly like a belt, “Deep” measures a player’s diaphragmatic breathing and uses it as a controlling mechanism. Players navigate various virtual environments by breathing in and out, concentrating on expanding and contracting their diaphragms — a long practiced technique for gaining control over anxiety and panic attacks. On screen, these breaths are represented both by a growing and shrinking ring, and activate a fluid, floating movement through calming underwater vistas. Users are both controlling their breath, and using their breath as a control.
For Harris, 34, “Deep” is “my first electronics project and my first sewing project,” but it’s also been an intergral step toward addressing his own problems with anxiety, which extend back “as far as I can remember.”
“The first things I tried in VR were things that I made myself,” he tells me from Dublin in a Google Hangout. “I knew what I wanted to create, I wanted to re-create a floatation tank. So the first things I made were just star fields to sit within. I was captivated by the transporting nature of VR, how it could place you within another place.”
“Deep,” while currently in beta exclusively as a festival installation game due to its homespun hardware demands, gives users an accessible, immersive avenue toward claiming agency over their own bodies (anxiety attacks can often feel like a loss of physical as well as mental control). Harris himself uses it to defuse his own stressful situations. “In the same way the floatation tank was able to give people a glimpse into these states of consciousness really quickly, with really no barrier to entry,” he says, “‘Deep’ can be that for other people.”
Harris doesn’t see “Deep” or similar approaches through VR as a replacement for medication or clinical treatment, but he does see virtual reality as a potentially revelatory tool to add to the arsenal of treatments. There’s a lot less stigma surrounding the epidemic of anxiety in America, and as more and more sufferers come to terms with how widespread it is, VR offers a unique opportunity to nudge treatment more toward the mainstream.
“I should say that it doesn’t work for everybody,” says Harris, who has tested the game on attendees of various VR conferences to striking results, with some users moved to tears. “Twenty percent of people just really don’t like it, 60 percent like it and think it’s neat and interesting and cool, and 20 percent really, really love it. It’s those people, when they take it off and they look at you with this really intense look, like you’ve given them something, they’ve had an experience but there’s no way to communicate it, that’s really gratifying.”