Real Future

The incredible future of VR isn’t video games or movies—it’s medicine

This is Episode 10 of Real Future, Fusion’s documentary series about technology and society. More episodes available at realfuture.tv.

For years, the tech and entertainment industries have been hyping the dawn of the “VR age”—the point at which virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift will change news, entertainment, and communication as we know them. But the reality of VR technology has been a little…less exciting. The headsets are expensive and weird-looking, the app ecosystem is small and underdeveloped, and a few technical bugs still remain. (Some VR users complain about nausea, for example.)

That’s about to change. Companies like Microsoft and Facebook (which owns Oculus) have been pouring billions of dollars into improving the VR experience, and bringing it to the masses. Video game makers and movie studios are
releasing huge blockbusters designed specifically for VR. Even porn companies
are getting in on the action with adult VR apps.

But VR isn’t all sex and games. In this episode of Real Future, we meet two health professionals who are using virtual reality as a medical tool.

The first, an Argentinian psychologist named Fernando Tarnogol, has created a software platform called Phobos that uses VR to treat extreme fears and anxieties like acrophobia (fear of heights) and arachnophobia (fear of spiders) by mimicking the triggering conditions in a safe, controlled virtual environment. Tarnogol hopes that in the future, people with a wide range of anxieties and phobias will use VR as a safe, low-cost supplement to traditional exposure therapy.

“Technology and psychology are very far apart, but the clinical trial research has proven that this works,” Tarnogol told us.

Fernando Tarnogol leads a patient with a fear of heights through a Phobos simulation.

Fernando Tarnogol leads a patient with a fear of heights through a Phobos simulation.

After seeing Phobos in action, we headed to the UCLA Medical Center, where Dr. Neil Martin, the center’s chair of neurosurgery, is leading an effort to use VR to prepare surgeons for the operating room. Dr. Martin and his team are working with a technology developed by a company called Surgical Theater, which uses VR headsets to allow surgeons to step inside 3D models of their patients’ brains before they operate on them. By using a VR environment to explore, say, a patient’s brain that has a malignant tumor, Dr. Martin says that doctors are able to “fly around” the tumor, see it from all sides, spot potential complications, and mentally prepare for the high-stakes operation.

“Virtual reality gives you that understanding of your entire 180 or even 360-degree anatomy that is impossible to get with any other technique,” Dr. Martin said. “In 10
minutes, 15 minutes, I can see the critical issues that I’ve got in mind that have to be dealt with, and historically this took 10 or 20 years of experience.”

Medical applications like Phobos and Surgical Theater won’t be the most attention-grabbing or lucrative uses for virtual reality. But they might be the most important. A VR headset probably won’t save your life, but it might be able to help someone who can.

Watch as we explore the world of medical VR in the video below:

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