Geo Week News

February 3, 2012

Using 3D to help ease pain

It’s hard to be my usual full-of-levity self when I come across a story like Capt. Sam Brown’s. His profile in GQ, a tale of how he was burned terribly after an IED attack in Afghanistan and his grueling recovery stateside, is an absolute must read. Moving through it’s five pages, I found myself alternately incredibly sad, writhing with empathy, and highly encouraged.

No, there isn’t a great reason why he had to sacrifice so much. Yes, his story will rip your heart out. But the way that a group of researchers is using 3D technology to help him battle the excruciating pain is a testament to the ways in which human ingenuity really can make a difference in people’s lives. 

And, really, the solution here isn’t that complex. In order to help Capt. Brown and others battle the residual pain of burn injuries, researches at the University of Washington devised Snow World, an immersive virtual reality video game where soldiers blast snowmen and penguins with snowballs while they’re undergoing physical therapy, dropping their experience of pain significantly.

This video from ScienCenter does a great job of explaining how it works:


And the applications don’t stop there. They’re using virtual spiders to help arachnophobes; virtual bars to help alcoholics; virtual casinos to help gamblers – the applications are just beginning to be explored. At the moment, most of these virtual environments appear to be created from whole cloth. But just imagine the power these VR “games” could have if created using real-world data. 

In the story they mention the possibility of allowing rehabbing soldiers to continue the fight by virtually piloting drones and performing surveillance and bombing runs. To train for that, they’d need real-world 3D data to help them pilot into those real areas of Afghanistan and Iraq where the enemy is hiding out. 

Or if you’re treating a fear of heights – how could any data be better than a real cliff at the edge of a real drop off? It only stands to reason that the more realistic the environment in which the treated patient is immersed, the more real the treatment might be and more effective. 

Of course, it’s impossible to know. Many video game creators have discovered that real-world scenarios are sometimes less interesting to players than imaginary worlds into which they’re looking to escape. It’s apparently more fun to kill aliens on other planets than in your own city streets. But that hasn’t stopped iRacing from making their tracks as realistic as possible. 

Obviously, the training market demands 3D that’s as realistic as possible, and you don’t have to tell VRContext that. Their Walkinside product allows for completely immersive training that incorporates a real-life, say, plant environment. Take a look:


Some have long mocked virtual reality for never living up to its hype (and, really, what ever does live up to the hype of today’s 24/7 media?), but maybe some of the delay in adoption stemmed from a lack of great reality capture tools. Now that those tools are starting to become more and more available, will we see a renewed VR interest? I’m thinking so.

Especially if the American military gets behind it.

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