VR: Therapy or Escapism?

Is virtual reality destined to be a mere gaming platform or does it have something more to offer?

Virtual Reality—or VR for short—has enjoyed a significant resurgence in recent years. VR has certainly come a long way since gaining traction in popular culture via 1980s science fiction. Following a wave of interest in the early 90s, it became clear the technology simply wasn’t there yet and virtual reality came to be considered something of a joke. But Facebook’s 2014 purchase of Oculus made it clear that functioning, affordable VR tech had finally arrived.

One question remained: What to do with it?

The Value of the Virtual

This being tech, the initial answer should have been obvious: Play video games! Doubtless, VR gaming is a remarkable experience. But for VR to become exclusively associated with playing games, would be unfortunate, because this could create a perception that all it’s good for is helping hardcore geeks escape the real world. This would limit adoption and discourage innovators from thinking outside the box when it came to dreaming up VR applications.

So, is Oculus Rift destined to become nothing more than a clunkier, even more antisocial Google Glass? Let’s hope not because VR actually has remarkable potential and there are certainly some valuable VR apps in development. A recent TechCrunch article makes perhaps the loftiest claim for VR’s potential to date: that it can be used in “Treating the Global Mental Health Crisis”.

Headset Therapy

Perhaps the most interesting fact imparted by the article is that VR has, in fact, always been about more than just playing games. VR has been used as a component in exposure therapy since the technology’s very earliest days. But it is only now, with better and—crucially—more affordable headsets coming on the market, that it has become theoretically possible for this technique to be used widely.

The VR renaissance also presents opportunities to develop innovative treatments for challenging conditions, like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Multiple companies are currently developing VR-based approaches to treating PTSD and other anxiety-related disorders. Meanwhile, others are focusing on preventative applications that help people to cope with the everyday stresses and strains that can trigger these disorders.

The Future is Virtually Here

Outside the mental health field, many VR use cases are emerging, related to medical training, architecture and automotive safety. Perhaps the most remarkable applications are in physical healthcare, where VR is being used to help paraplegics regain body functions and to treat pain without drugs. Clearly then, VR isn’t all just fun and games. But the question remains: Will it have any relevance for the majority of enterprises?

If the comparison with Google Glass has any validity, it seems the answer is “yes”. While Glass was hardly a hit with consumers, it has enjoyed a surprising second wind in the enterprise. The telepresence and video conferencing innovations smart glasses have made possible in the automotive and insurance sectors, for example, clearly have wide applicability. And the more immersive, tactile nature of VR could make these innovations all the more valuable.

Of course, with every innovation come challenges and it will be interesting to see how enterprises support, manage and secure VR technology.

Sam Macklin
By Sam Macklin | January 03, 2017