Meet the VR Experience Customized By Your Body

VRScout’s Zeynep Abes checked out the VR Village at this week’s SIGGRAPH show in L.A. She was taken by Strata, a VR experience from The Mill, a global media studio better known for producing hip-hop mogul Jay-Z’s recent, “The Story of O.J.” video.

Strata was actually released last year, but neither I nor, apparently, Abes, had heard of it until this week. The experience combines an Oculus Rift headset with a chest-worn heart monitor and a Bluetooth device called Muse:

Before putting on the Oculus Rift, the developer placed a headband on me, called Muse, to track my brainwaves—to monitor wether or not my mind was calm or active. Muse is described as a meditation assistant, but in this case it was used to help Strata tune into my heart rate, breathing, and stress levels. The experience can respond to my emotional state and create a virtual world depending on that data.

Muse is just one of a growing fleet of consumer-facing biometric devices that leverage low-cost sensors and the power of computers consumers already own, namely smartphones and laptops. While Strata requires a relatively expensive Oculus Rift-and-PC combination to run, the $249 Muse headband was originally designed to work directly with an Android or iPhone app.

That said, the notion of leveraging biometric sensors to create customized VR experiences based on an individual user’s state of being at a given moment is intriguing, to say the least. Imagine the old “iTunes Visualizer,” but in virtual reality, and responding to/controlled by your breathing and heart rates, and other biometric data:

Strata gave voice and form to the invisible happenings within me. The minimalist designs with the dreamy color palettes for each world gracefully reflected me back to myself; my breathing created ripples across the water, my stress level changed colors around me and heart beat pulsed in sync with the floating orbs of light around me. A state of calm washed over me as the experience started to come to an end.

It’ll be interesting to see if these types of devices and experience gain traction once they’re able to work with standalone VR rigs like the ones coming soon from Google’s partners, HTC, and, most likely, Facebook and Samsung.

Virtual Reality Gains Traction in Mental Health Care

Cade Metz, NYTimes:

Backed by the venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, Limbix is less than a year old. The creators of its new service, including its chief executive and co-founder, Benjamin Lewis, worked in the seminal virtual reality efforts at Google and Facebook.

The hardware and software they are working with is still very young, but Limbix builds on more than two decades of research and clinical trials involving virtual reality and exposure therapy. At a time when much-hyped headsets like the Daydream and Facebook’s Oculus are still struggling to find a wide audience in the world of gaming — let alone other markets — psychology is an area where technology and medical experts believe this technology can be a benefit.

As far back as the mid-1990s, clinical trials showed that this kind of technology could help treat phobias and other conditions, like post-traumatic stress disorder.

VR is gaining steam in the medical community, amongst mental health professionals and as a supplement to medication-based treatment. Early results are incredibly promising; adapting proven therapy techniques to virtual reality seems to be an obvious starting point with huge upside. The trick will be getting so-called digital medicine approved as a legit form of care by regulators and insurance companies.

Until health care providers are able to bill insurers for VR-based treatments, so-called digital medicine will only be a option for those with deep pockets and/or access to practitioners willing to treat people for free.

VR and Eye Gaze Tracking in Autism Research

Fascinating overview of research into social difficulties in Autism, and the use of Virtual Reality in those efforts. Animated characters and VR headsets allow for a great level of control in research studies, including isolating and eliminating variables to get closer to the root of a problem. And the safe space afforded by simulations could lead to more people with Autism getting involved with the research itself.

As the researchers, Nathan Caruna and John Brock, wrote on Spectrum:

We need tests that allow us to precisely measure behavior in complex, reciprocal social interactions. To achieve this goal, we and others are investigating the use of virtual-reality technology as a tool for research and, potentially, therapy.

So far, so good – on several fronts:

Using these technologies, we have confirmed that problems with joint attention—the ability to coordinate with someone else so that you are both paying attention to the same thing—persist into adulthood. We’ve also gained important insights about the roots of these problems. We also hope that adults with autism can one day practice their social skills within specially designed virtual environments.

In our research so far, participants have interacted with a virtual character on a computer screen. The next step is to use fully immersive virtual-reality headsets to recreate more realistic social interactions, in which individuals must evaluate multiple social cues at once, including eye gaze, head orientation, hand gestures, speech and facial expressions.

We, among others, are also considering clinical applications of new immersive virtual-reality technologies. Virtual simulations could perhaps be used for social-skills training in which elements of a social interaction are introduced gradually. Virtual meeting spaces could also allow people with and without autism to interact in a safe and controlled environment that reduces anxiety and sensory overload.

The possibilities for VR in healthcare are just immense right now.

(via Scientific American)