The Loyola University Medical Center in Illinois will be one of the first hospitals in the U.S. to use a virtual reality game to help burn patients. By using SnowWorld, developed at the University of Washington, patients recovering from severe burns will enter a virtual 'polar landscape of gently falling snowflakes, snowmen, penguins, igloos and icy rivers.' But it's not the cold effect that will reduce the patients' pain. It's the distraction from their pain. As said one of the developers, 'It blocks your view of the real world. It blocks out everything. It helps you escape from your pain.' But read more...
You can see above a SnowWorld image by Stephen Dagadakis from the 2003 version (Credit: Hunter Hoffman, University of Washington)
And here is another SnowWorld image by Ari Hollander from the 2006 version (Credit: Hunter Hoffman, University of Washington) Both pictures were extracted from Alienware Ensures SnowWorld Stays Cool, a document published by Alienware and the University of Washington Virtual Reality Research Center (PDF format, 7 pages, 229 KB).
This software has been developed in recent years at the Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HITLab) of the University of Washington by Hunter Hoffman, a research scientist. He worked with David Patterson, a rehabilitation psychologist who studies pain management at the Harborview Medical Center of the University of Washington. Here are two links which will give you more details about their work, Virtual Reality Pain Reduction and fMRI Research on Virtual Reality Analgesia.
But how is SnowWorld used in hospitals? Let's return to the Loyola University Health System news release. "During treatment, a patient wears a stereoscopic, position-tracking helmet that displays a world of three-dimensional graphics. The patient is also equipped with headphones and a mouse that allows the patient to throw snowballs. Along with sound effects, the system has the ability to let the patient pipe in their favorite music while the play the game."
And the patient can interact with the software. "Once the system is turned on, the patient enters a world of snowmen, penguins and polar bears that are perched on icy ledges or are floating in a frigid river. The snowmen use their spindly arms and hands to throw snowballs at the patient who can, with the click of the mouse, deflect the incoming ball of ice with a snowball of their own. Further clicks can unleash a torrent of virtual snowballs that on contact cause the snowmen and igloos to explode in powdery puffs and the penguins to cartwheel over with a squawk. The system also has two high-resolution flat-screen monitors that display what the patient is seeing."
In "A high-tech aid for extreme pain," the Chicago Tribune gives more practical details. "'Distraction of pain has always been there whether it's turning on the television or the radio,' said Adam Young, a physical therapist in Loyola's burn unit. 'This is the next level.' The game will be restricted to patients in the 21-bed unit who are deemed medically appropriate -- not too young or too old and no one who is medically unstable. They will play the game during physical therapy sessions."
For more information, SnowWorld is provided free for research and clinical use from Dr. Hunter Hoffman, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington, Seattle. It is available from Imprint, 'an authorized reseller for VR industry leaders,' and is endorsed by graphics card maker NVidia as you can read here. You'll find additional details on the Imprint's Pain Control page, which states that SnowWorld 3 is being used in leading hospitals across the US and Europe, and by the US military.
I'll leave the conclusion to Hoffman, who talks to the Chicago Tribune. "'The game is in its third generation, but the cold motif is not so important as the distraction. It's the illusion of going inside the computer-generated world,' he said. 'It blocks your view of the real world. It blocks out everything. It helps you escape from your pain.'"
Sources: Loyola University Health System news release, March 18, 2008; Josh Noel, The Chicago Tribune, March 24, 2008; and various websites
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