Wednesday, January 11, 2017

At Least I'm Virtually Healthy

Virtual reality (VR) is hot.  It was one of the headliners at this year's CES (as it was at last year's...).  One report predicted that VR "will change everyday human experience in the coming decade," just as smartphones have in the past decade.   We're not just talking about much, much more immersive games, although that industry has been an early adopter.  Every industry is going to have to figure out how to best make use of it (and its cousin, augmented reality).

Including health care.

What interests me most is whether VR proves to be a path towards improving our health, or if it will end up making us care even less about it.
VR is already making in-roads in health care.  One of the ways that VR is being used is to help people manage pain, whether that is for people undergoing painful procedures, people with chronic pain such as amputees' "phantom limb" pain, even women in childbirth.

The theory is that the brain can only absorb so much information at a time, and the VR experience can essentially crowd out the information stream that is carrying the pain signals.  You are still hurt, your body is still sending out pain signals, but, if the VR is done right, those pain signals are just getting lower priority.  Our brain would rather be in VR.

VR has also been proposed as a powerful tool in addressing a variety of mental health issues, including stress, anxiety disorders, or PTSD.  As with pain relief, some of the traditional alternatives include a variety of pharmaceutical remedies, some of which can carry risks of addiction, so VR can be a boon.

People are using VR for their health too, not just their health care.  Many people find exercise boring, especially extended sessions on treadmills, exercise bikes, or ellipticals.  For several years, many gyms have allowed users to pretend they were elsewhere while they exercised, tying activity on the exercise machines to images of more scenic locales playing out on flat screen TVs in front of them.

VR takes this to the next level.  Instead of essentially watching images on television, the VR is almost as if you are actually there.  VirZoom, for example, claims to straddle esports and exercise, as its exercise bike connects to a number of leading VR headsets.  Users can compete with other players as they work out.  Fitbit has already partnered with them.  

There are no shortage of other entrants trying to make VR part of fitness efforts.  For example, Blue Goji and Holofit have similar approaches to VirZoom, while Black Box VR offers a virtual gym, complete with virtual personal trainer.

The VR fitness program I want to see, though, would help remind people why they should try to get better health habits.  Many people have gotten used to their current health status, even if that status includes being overweight, poor cardiovascular systems, and weakening muscles.  We often slide from good health to fair health to poor health without fully realizing it, and that can be a pit that is hard to climb out of.  Watching TV is easy, junk food tastes good, while exercise is hard and eating better requires some discipline.  So many don't make the effort.

What if VR not other took us to other places, but also helped show us how we could feel?  Want to see how your body would look and feel like if you walked a mile a day and lost ten pounds?  If you ran 20 miles a week and lost 30 pounds?  Actually experiencing the fruits of your efforts before you undertook them, in order to better understand the effort/reward trade-offs, might serve as a powerful motivator for those who have had a hard time making those trade-offs.

VR could similarly help people make more informed decisions about proposed treatments that can have both positive and negative trade-offs, such as knee or hip replacements.

The better VR becomes, though, the more danger will be that, well, the VR version of us might be preferable to the "real" us.  People have gotten used to the concept of avatars in games, and invest a lot of emotional energy into what that avatar is and how they can "improve" it.  Our avatar in VR may increasingly be us, only a new-and-improved us.  Once robots have taken over our jobs and the government pays us a universal basic income (as Elton Musk and others have suggested will both happen), there may be less reason to be in reality and all-the-more reason to spend our time in VR.

We're already worried about the impact of excessive screen time on the health habits of teens, and that is without VR as a common option.  The trend towards how much time is spent per capita on playing games continues to steadily increase - again, without VR.  Think of the time we'll be soon spending in VR.

Once VR is ubiquitous, inexpensive, and as nearly lifelike as we can perceive -- all of which are in our near future -- why wouldn't we want to be in VR?  

It sounds a little like The Matrix, except that we might be voluntarily making the choice to live in VR instead of having it imposed upon us by our AI overlords.  We might like to think we're Neo, the hero of our own lives, but many of us might opt to be like Cypher, who found reality bland, difficult, and dangerous, and chose a virtual steak over helping his flesh-and-blood fellow humans.

We're barely scratching the surface of what VR is and what it can do.  VR headsets are clunky and expensive, and still have limited options for what they let us experience.  They're like early PCs or early smartphones.  Not many in 1987 imagined what their PCs would be able to do in 2017, and not many in 2007 saw all that smartphones of 2017 would offer. The gap between VR of today and VR of 2027 will be wider than that of the gap between the first iPhone and today's iPhone 7.  

Virtual reality is going to do wonderful, amazing things.  It will change how we play games, how we do business, how we socialize, how we get health care -- in short, how we live our lives.  The question is, will it help us live better, more productive lives -- or will it become our lives?  


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