The growing virtual reality (VR) medium seems to hold many benefits beyond the technology’s entertainment value, with several companies now exploring new ways and means to making VR an effective tool capable of improving human lives. Such is the case with a relatively new VR startup Firsthand Technology, which aims to develop VR experiences that can help reduce pain and anxiety in patients. The company recently created a VR application Cool! and initial testing shows that it has the potential of reducing chronic pain on a level similar to morphine treatments.
Firsthand Technology was co-founded by Howard Rose, who began working on VR technologies over 20 years ago at the University of Washington’s Human Interface Technology Lab (HITLab). HITLab was founded by US Air Force veteran Tom Furness, who had previously conducted research on primitive VR technologies dating back to as far as the '60s in order to treat phobias and help test subjects learn foreign languages. More recently, as in over the past decade, HITLab psychologist Hunter Hoffman conducted experimental therapy for treating burn victims using virtual environments and created a VR application called SnowWorld. The application was designed to divert a patient’s attention away from pain and immerse users into a virtual snowy canyon where they could fly and throw snowballs at snowmen and penguins, which proved to be a relaxing experience. Several trials have been conducted on Army veterans over the past decade, with results showing that patients have reported up to 50 percent less pain while playing SnowWorld.
These results led to Howard Rose leaving HITLab and creating Fisrsthand Technology. Howard Rose partnered with a pain management clinic led by Dr. Ted Jones in Tennessee, and started testing the concept of pain management using a new VR app prototype depicted in the video below. The application was tested by 40 patients, each having to go through a total of 60 VR sessions. Following initial testing, 39 out of 40 people have reported 30 to 50 percent less pain after a single VR session in Cool!, which seems to be on par with the average 30-percent pain reduction provided by morphine treatment. Furthermore, the participants reported up to 60 to 75 percent less pain following all 60 VR sessions. Additionally, Firsthand Technology reveals that according to brain scans, VR can have other positive effects on the human psyche, such as enhancing mindfulness and brain activity. The startup hopes that VR technologies can be used for improving health while reducing the need for drugs in treating pain and stress.