Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Virtual Worlds Ease Real Pain

Immersion in a virtual reality environment is not always driven by gaming. In many large scale worlds there is commerce, travel, education and romance. There are also studies and environments that are designed to relieve pain and heal psychological wounds.

I had the pleasure of spending yesterday afternoon with Ari J. Hollander, Virtual Environment Designer, and Howard Rose, Virtual World Design and Development, of Imprint Interactive Technology, Inc.

They were visiting the campus and, other than meeting with me, were also meeting with one of the faculty, Dr. Isabelle Bichindaritz. She teaches Computational Worlds here at the Institute of Technology at the UWT, which is “the development of a large-scale software project related to advanced imaging involving computational intelligence and artificial life applied to such fields as game development, virtual reality, or computer vision.” What they also have in common is the use of Virtools as the development platform for the virtual worlds they create. You can imagine who they found more interesting.

Imprint Interactive Technology, which has been around since the mid 90’s, has worked with Dr. Hunter Hoffman at the University of Washington on research and treatment projects for burn treatment, phobias and post traumatic stress disorder. With direction from the researchers, Imprint creates virtual worlds specifically designed for clinical therapies and support of the research.

One example is Snow World, where the patient floats in ice canyons and pelts snowmen, igloos, and woolly mammoths with snowballs while treatment for severe burns is being given. The key to three-dimensional virtual reality is to mentally transport the patient to another location and world. Results have shown a 50%-90% reduction in pain related brain activity. Another is IraqWorld for U.S. military personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

As Ari has written in his abstract from Playing Games with Painful Memories, a feature written for Seriousgamesource, “going through therapy for PTSD is decidedly not a game, and exposure therapy typically involves highly structured graded exposure treatment therapy protocols”.

Other worlds include SpiderWorld for the treatment of arachnophobia, and a realistic bus bombing simulation for Dr. Tamar Weiss.

The worlds that are built require the equipment to make them immersive, and as a function of their business, Imprint also engages in VR systems sales, installation and support including deployment on a tested system.

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