Virtual Reality is a way of interacting with real or imagined "environments." In our case it involves using information technologies in such a way that all consciousness of using a technology disappears. Until recently, this technology has been only available to a small set of computer hackers and active research projects. Currently, the costs and nature of the equipment to place some one in a "whole new reality" preclude access for the average individual.
When using a virtual reality system, the user gets a feeling of being "in" the environment--like a fighter pilot in a flight simulator system. This is done by stimulating more than one sense, using natural movement as input and locking out external stimuli.
Stimulating more than one sense: Normally, a computer use merely sight (and occasionally sound, such as the beep you get every time you make a mistake) to interact with the user. In a virtual reality system, one can stimulate hearing more effectively (putting on realistic sound effects, using binaural sound) or feeling (by using joysticks and other devices) that give a feeling of the computer-generated objects that are being manipulated.
Using natural movement as input: In the example of the architect and the customer, neither of them give explicit commands to the computer to tell it that they are moving in a certain direction in the virtual building. Instead, they are "walking" in that direction, and the direction and speed is picked up by a "treadmill" they are walking on or by infra-red sensors that senses their spatial positions. The designer uses a device that lets him grip the computer-projected camera using exactly the same movements he would have used if he was gripping a real camera.
Locking out external stimuli: When the architect and the customer are "walking" around in the building image built by the computer, they do not see anything but that building. Since the computer-generated image is the only stimuli received, that will be what the mind perceives as real. This is done by using wide-angle stereoscopic projection -- a lot of our sensing of room and place is done by what we see out of the corners of our eyes) and binaural sound -- sound that has been recorded with two microphones placed on each side of a sound-blocking device -- like our ears are placed in our head. When this sound is played back in earphones, it gives you, according to inventor Eric Howlett, "an eerie feeling of being there".
We have been exploring an opportunity to consider the use of virtual reality in the role of distraction associated with pain and stress that accompany treatment. The opportunities for leverage of these technologies as a distraction, relate to three time periods: prior to treatment, during treatment, and post treatment. There are different levels and forms of pain and anxiety associated with each of those stages and that potentially different means of distraction are useful at these different stages. Virtual reality technologies might be an important opportunity to engage the attention of the patient and distract them from the pain and anxiety associated with each of those stages.
We are working to establish a taxonomy of pain conditions or stress conditions and align those with the different periods and state conditions associated with the treatment-pre-, during, and post-, and also looking at the mix of means of distraction, again assuming that there is a taxonomy of those means of distraction and engagement. The role and importance of human contact in gaining that engagement to begin the distraction is an important consideration. Technologies may be a beguiling means of engaging/seizing their dominant senses of the eyes and ears, of sight and sound, and bringing them into a different reality. The role of games and other means of engagement are important considerations. We expect that violent games and games that would involve balance or sportslike/competitive engagements would raise stress levels, so it may not be useful distraction. I assume that things like muscle contractions and stressing are concerns for the delivery of quality treatments. But it may be an important part of the role not only to distract, but to relax/calm down the patient. Clearly from a standpoint of muscular tension and other things that you don't want intervening or interfering with the treatment processes, especially during treatment. So certain kinds of engagement might be viable before and after treatment, that are not necessarily viable during treatment. We are currently building a classification (taxonomy) of the types of desired conditions or desired physiological states associated with each of these treatments and conditions.
Again the process and purpose of the virtual reality technologies is to capture the senses, displace the individual into a "different reality," by reprogramming or re-stimulating those sense with another reality. And engaging them/beguiling them in some way that seizes hold of their attention in positive service. The order of dominance of the senses of course, the seizing of the sight and audio senses, those being dominant senses, are certainly a key part of this. Not only creating/offering a new reality, but distracting, making sure that the other realities are masked. So, what that means is that the realities associated with the world watching a TV screen is not sufficient distraction. There's still too much going around the environment. That means, from a sight (vision) standpoint, moving head mounted displays or using darkened rooms, or whatever, mask out the other reality. Same is ture of audio senses. Earphones not only provide the audio sense but they mask out other audio stimulus. There are ambient sights and sounds that need to be acknowledged, managed in and managed out. The technologies may then serve the needed distraction.