I’m no gamer, but I was giddy about my VR experience. There’s a growing group of VR evangelists trying to bring the headsets into mainstream medicine.
The promise of virtual reality’s role in medical treatments of the future was bright enough to pull Aaron Gani out of his role as Humana’s chief technology officer and into the frenetic world of start-ups.
Gani left Humana on May 4 to fully focus his attention on his side hustle, BehaVR, which is a virtual reality healthcare start-up.
Virtual reality is not a new technology. It’s been around for decades but it’s only this modern iteration of the technology that is sophisticated and advanced enough to transport people — pretty cheaply — into an alternative reality, experts say.
Gani says prior to this VR renaissance it was an effective but impractical and expensive technology. It wasn’t smooth enough for people to feel like they’d left the real world to enter one entirely developed by code. And it wasn’t cheap enough for people to consider purchasing it.
Gani and I talked on his first day fully focused on BehaVR, and just days after I’d tried VR for a piece for the Nashville Post’s latest ‘Techie’ magazine.
My gaming experience consists entirely of a devotion to old school GameBoy Tetris and more recently, an addictive app called Crunchtime that’s hundreds of levels of puzzles designed around feeding treats to cats.
So, I wasn’t terribly excited, and I never expected to be captivated and giddy at being in another reality that exists only when wearing a headset.
But there I was, laughing in an office at JourneyPure in Murfreesboro, wearing a headset that Vanderbilt University’s clinical psychology grad student Noah Robinson is currently using in a study. His work is focused on the impact VR has on in-patients at the drug and substance rehab center.
I was awestruck by being able to fend off colorful orbs flying at me timed to a pop song and transfixed by being able to walk around my glittering 3D starburst art. I could walk around what I’d created and didn’t really want to leave it.
Lee Kebler, president of BlackBox Realities, sees this reaction nearly every time he takes a headset to a CEO suite of a company that’s interested in commissioning a VR project.
“What really caught people off guard is the immersiveness of it,” says Kebler.
The new wave of affordable and crisp technology “happened without humans noticing it was going to happen,” Kebler said.
BehaVR, based in Elizabethtown, Ky., is in the market with a smoking cessation program and plans to debut a chronic pain program designed for physical therapy centers in the coming months.
Robinson will spend this summer writing the results of a year-long study at JourneyPure. He wants to prove that VR works as a treatment for addiction and can retrain the brain.
There is a growing group of researchers, companies and clinicians that think VR will integrate into medical care, possibly well before insurers decide whether they’ll pay for it, as headsets don’t cost that much relative to high end medical machinery.
Kebler and Robinson note there are many answered questions — no one is quite sure how the brain interprets VR. And BlackBox, based in Nashville, won’t make any dangerous or violent programs unless it’s for a training purpose because what happens in VR is a memory for those who experience it.
Robinson says the experience in VR seems to alter someone’s mood, just as a mood altering substance, so building treatments and parameters will be paramount.
“We have to figure out how to be human with it and what that means. If someone misuses it, it’s not that technology but the person. We have to remember you don’t have to be in there, you don’t have to be in there doing whatever you’re doing in there,” said Kebler.
“It can be the reality you are looking for and I think that’s going to cause a lot more inward focus. We’re rediscovering ourselves in many ways and we’re not entirely sure of what it is but I think there’s a lot of positivity,” said Kebler.
What shocks these VR evangelists is that it took this long for people to see the potential of a technology that could help stem cravings or behaviors that cost the medical system billions of dollars.
Or allow companies to prepare workers for high pressure jobs like repairing wind turbines many stories. Or allow a company to “take” its latest heavy machinery on a roadshow where people can experience the features and design without paying the enormous shipping costs.
“You knew the words. It’s not like the concept is foreign,” said Kebler. “If we all knew that — if we all saw The Matrix in 1999, where were we? Really the error is on our end that we collectively missed it coming.”
Read a companion piece in the Nashville Post that explores the potential of virtual reality as a treatment component in substance abuse and counseling as well as treating the underlying behaviors that lead to chronic disease.