Virtual Reality for therapeutical needs

Friday, July 10, 2009

An outgrowth of the Computer Graphics research field, Virtual Environment (VE) technology has today become a fully independent research topic. VEs are simulated environments generated by a computer with which human operators can interact through different sensory modalities. Real-life applications of VE technology are an increasingly emergent phenomenon, although still in very specialized contexts (Ghedini et al, 2009).

In the medical sector VEs are commonly used in surgical simulation tasks, medical imaging and neuroscience. One of the most promising medical applications for VE technology is rehabilitation (Ghedini et al, 2009). In this case devices and interaction modalities may present very different features depending on the therapy or the pathology being dealt with. In fact the great flexibility of Virtual Reality (VR) represents one of its great strengths, allowing the most disparate therapeutical needs to be addressed and adapted to the special needs of some users.

Indeed, VR is increasingly used to treat pathologies like autism (Gillette et al, 2007), phobias (Carlin et al, 1997; Powers and Emmelkampa, 2008), brain lesions, neurological speech disorders (Rizzo, 1994), and even smoking, gambling, drugs and alcohol addictions. Such systems are designed in order to establish an efficient “interface” between patient and therapist, allowing the latter to define protocols and measurements which will be subsequently used to perform a quantitative evaluation about a patient’s progress. Usually these systems are based on mainly visual protocols, using a range of different types of displays. These may be either standard screens or immersive technologies like head-mounted displays and/or CAVEs (CAVE is an immersive virtual reality environment where projectors are directed to three, four, five or six of the walls of a room-sized cube).

In cases such as phobias, the subject can be immersed in a virtual world on a high bridge to treat fear of heights, in a room with virtual spiders, or in the middle of a war to treat post-traumatic syndrome disorder.

In the field of motion rehabilitation are heavily used force feedback devices like haptic interfaces and exoskeletons.


A. S. Carlin, H. G. Hoffman and S. Weghorst. 1997. Virtual reality and tactile augmentation in the treatment of spider phobia: a case report, Behaviour Research and Therapy, Elsevier.

D. R. Gillette et al. 2007. Interactive technologies for autism, Proc. of Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems archive CHI '07, pp. 2109 – 2112.

F. Ghedini, H. Faste, M. Carrozzino and M. Bergamasco. 2009. Passages - a 3D artistic interface for child rehabilitation and special needs. Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna/IMT Institute for Advanced Studies, ITALY.

M. B. Powers and P. M. G. Emmelkampa. 2008. Virtual reality exposure therapy for anxiety disorders: A meta-analysis, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, Volume 22, Issue 3, pp. 561-569.

A. A. Rizzo. 1994. Virtual Reality applications for the cognitive rehabilitation of persons with traumatic head injuries, Proc. of the 2nd International Conference on Virtual Reality and Persons With Disabilities, (HJ Murphy, Ed.), CSUN, Northridge