Virtual reality opens new paths to mental health

Micron Technology | September 2018

A recent report released by the National Alliance on Mental Illness revealed the surprising statistic that 43.8 million Americans will experience a mental health issue or illness in any given year. That is nearly 1 in 5 people. Even more surprising is that 60% of those people will go untreated.

Therapy and access to other forms of mental health care, in their traditional forms and practices, is becoming inaccessible to large parts of the population, due to factors like rising clinical costs, lack of insurance, or the impracticality or limitations of treatment options.

Take for example, the practice of desensitization to treat phobias or post-traumatic stress disorders. Clinicians execute repeated exposures to stimuli at different intervals, allowing patients to reinterpret and reframe negative emotional reactions to traumatic events. While it’s an effective and time-honored treatment method, many researchers believe that there’s room for improvement.

Virtual reality (VR) could be the catalyst to a new, more immersive and more easily accessible experience for patients. VR headsets offer advanced visual simulations that traditional models of therapy can’t. They can render the anxiety-provoking stimuli of individual patients, vividly, cost effectively, and on demand. Widespread use of clinical VR could result in brand new methods of desensitization, pain reduction and rehabilitation that could change the paradigm of the healthcare economy, resulting in more treatment for more people.

Clinicians, medical researchers and tech companies are all working to find and fine-tune brand new, unprecedented uses of virtual reality in the healthcare sector. All they need now is the technology to make it possible.

Virtual Reality’s Evolution into Healthcare

When Oculus was crowdfunded into existence in 2012 and eventually bought by Facebook in 2015, it was hard to imagine that VR was once nothing but a science fiction oddity. While its ascendance has been predicted by tech evangelists for decades, when Sony tried to produce and sell the first consumer VR headsets in the 1990s, the technology to see it through credibly and cost effectively simply didn’t exist. They failed commercially because they lacked both the hardware and the software, continuing VR’s ongoing “nuclear winter” of technology development.

Today, things couldn’t be more different. Chances are you or someone you know has an Oculus Rift or Oculus Go, or perhaps the newest Sony-created headset, the PlayStation VR, that enables virtual immersion into the latest video games. The VR industry as it currently stands is powered and driven forward by the massive popularity of video games. In 2019, revenue from this sector is projected to reach 15.1 billion US dollars. A 34% increase in VR gamers is also expected by 2019, and virtual reality recognition and interest among gamers has already reached an all-time high.

As the technology behind VR gaming has become more sophisticated, creating vivid renderings of vast virtual worlds, the brightest minds in tech have begun to question where the immense potential of the virtual reality industry’s ability to create these vivid visual simulations can go next. The answer could be in the healthcare industry, where innovative and cost-effective ways of treating patients in areas like mental health are needed now more than ever.

Goldman Sachs recently named healthcare the second most profitable market in the VR ecosystem. It’s potential as a sector for innovative, disruptive technologies has already produced numerous startups in areas like medical training, phobia treatment and pain reduction.

As an example of the earliest form of this kind of disruption in the healthcare industry: In 2016, a London hospital live-streamed an operation using a VR headset and 360-degree cameras, allowing students and specialists to view the operation for study. That was only the beginning. Moving forward, VR can provide detailed, immersive 3D training, relaxation solutions for surgical patients, innovative recovery programs for injuries and even change the way clinical treatment is conducted.

VR banner image with micron logo and question about VR

Advances in VR Means Greater Access to Treatment

Dr. Skip Rizzo, research director at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, has always believed in the power of virtual reality to combat mental health problems. Being at the forefront of clinical psychology’s transition in VR-based practices, Rizzo believes that clinical VR is the natural extension of advances in hardware and software that enable more sophisticated virtual experiences.

“The vision was always sound, to use virtual reality for clinical purposes. It just makes total sense,” Rizzo says. “If you study psychology, it’s the ultimate Skinner box—the idea of a controlled stimulus environment to put people in, either for testing or for doing human research under controllable conditions.”

Rizzo’s project Bravemind, is a clinical VR apparatus that treats veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder by using a head mounted display to expose patients to visual simulations of battle scenarios, as well as use advanced data analysis and collection techniques to control and adjust the environmental stimuli and measure and record patient reactions.

The technology to power that sophisticated head mounted display apparatus is already here, as demonstrated by the success of Bravemind. The problem is that head-mounted displays require the head-mounted display to be tethered to a powerful PC for the heavy lifting of advanced graphical rendering. This ultimately limits the scope of patient access to a project like Bravemind. For VR to truly find its way into mainstream clinical care, the tether to the PC needs to be removed, allowing more convenience, flexibility and ultimately wider adoption.

“I think the next significant advance is with stand-alone VR headsets,” Rizzo says. “I see that as an important step in fostering better penetration to clinical service providers.”

The more natural developers can make the clinical virtual reality experience, whether it’s rendering more realistic graphics, limiting wires, removing remotes or creating a more sophisticated sensory experience, the greater the improvement in clinician and client experience will be.

To create more access to high-quality, low-cost and convenient care, standalone VR technology is clearly the next step. If all goes well, headsets will be found in even more places than they are now.

Dr. Skip Rizzo

“I hope VR headsets will become kind of like toasters. Every home will have one, and even though you might not use it every day, it will be a practical form of media consumption. When that happens, a wider population of people will become familiar with VR and will come to expect it as part of their clinical care.”

Research Director, University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies

The only way this can happen, though, is if standalone VR headsets become a standard in the world of medical care.

Cutting-Edge Memory is Critical for Overcoming Performance Bottlenecks

So, how does virtual reality detach itself from PCs, the way Rizzo described? For starters, it needs to become mobile. Experiencing VR on a mobile platform is the easiest way to increase accessibility to the consumer, the clinician and the patient. The result will be mobile VR headsets in clinicians’ offices and at home with patients, true to Rizzo’s vision. But, some important criteria need to be met first.

The technology components used inside standalone VR headsets must deliver both high performance and low power, making sure that the headsets do not lose their power within a short period of time, increasing overall clinician and patient usability. Simultaneously, VR displays need to render sophisticated scenarios for various forms of treatment, with more pixels, faster refresh rates and lower latency to cut down on things like motion or simulation sickness and create a genuine sense of total and complete immersion.

Micron’s memory technology plays a critical role in creating that all-important VR experience needed to push treatments to the next level. Low-power DRAM (LPDRAM) memory enable high-performance VR graphics while maintaining a low-power profile and creating more of a performance buffer to allow the VR device to take on more sophisticated multimedia tasks. What results is a VR experience that is both power efficient and visually stunning.

Cutting-edge LPDDR4x, the latest lower-power version of LPDRAM, delivers significant performance headroom for future VR features that could be integrated to push mobile, patient-centric treatments even further. Features like vital-sign sensors, haptic gloves and neuroimaging could be integrated into the mobile VR treatment experience, creating the potential for new innovations based on treatment options and the resulting data that were never even previously considered, much less explored. The use of high-power, sophisticated memory solutions will be the engine behind this exploration of various metrics of health and wellness, the creation of new treatment options and the proliferation of mobile healthcare via virtual reality.

With mass production of clinical VR headsets on the horizon, an exciting opportunity to explore the potential of new kinds of treatment is here. The need for faster and more efficient memory will be a constant with any kind of technological innovation, and Micron’s memory solutions will push healthcare into its newest phase of more accessible clinical treatment, with virtual reality as the catalyst for innovation.

What’s Next for VR?

Dr. Rizzo is excited about the possible inclusion of artificial intelligence (AI) in VR experiences. “By 2020, everybody will have regular contact with an intelligent agent,” he says. “That relies on A.I.” One of his areas of expertise is developing “virtual humans” in the vein of a chatbot, using A.I., (voice recognition and natural language processing) to help diagnose and treat disorders when given information directly by patients.

There is great potential to integrate artificial intelligence into VR treatment for mental health disorders. Dedicated artificial intelligence engines are already integrated into the hardware of mobile devices, which encourage the creation new innovations using the same components.

Rizzo says that the change in paradigm caused by clinical VR and the possible integration of artificial intelligence into the equation will cause a mass re-evaluation of the traditional practices of psychology. Will therapists, as they are traditionally conceived of and used, need to exist if a computer can diagnose and prescribe treatments to patients in need and if treatment can be transported to a virtual space?

“People are going to have to re-tool,” Rizzo says. “I don’t think it’s going to dumb us down as humans, I think it’s going to amplify our abilities to do our jobs better.”

In healthcare, more than any other sector, problems that affect us on the most fundamental level—our livelihoods—call for sophisticated solutions. These solutions need to effectively use new and emerging technologies. The vision for VR as the driving force behind more immersive and expansive treatment of a wide variety of disorders, as well as an agent of change in the way we traditionally approach healthcare has always been there. Now, the question is, how do we push those innovations forward? Micron is helping find the answers.