Virtual reality technology has revolutionized the world of video games. But these amazing computer-generated worlds have far more uses, and far stranger uses, than just gaming platforms. How about a study on the neural responses of zebrafish or the reproduction of an Amazonian hallucinogenic ritual?
Well, in this list we delve into some of the most impressive and bizarre examples of virtual reality. It’s definitely been put to some surreal uses, but also some pretty fascinating ones, like treating paralysis and researching mental illness. The ethics of some of these advances are still up for debate, but one thing is for sure: VR is truly changing the world.
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10 Taking sick children on a trip to the zoo
Nobody likes to see children suffer. As horrible as life can be for a child in a hospital, virtual reality could provide some respite. In 2015, a project called Robots for Good announced plans to help young patients at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital visit the zoo.
Using 3D printing technology, the group is creating life-size, human-like robots that can be controlled remotely by a child in the hospital. The android then rolls around the zoo, transmitting everything he sees through a VR headset. In this way, sick children can feel like they are traveling through the zoo and meeting the animals.
The technology involved is almost entirely open source, which means that anyone with the right hardware and knowledge can get involved and customize it. As Richard Hulskes, one of the key founders of Robots for Good, explained: “My vision with this project is that we create the prototype, we create the idea, and then we let it go. We want others to pick it up.”
“What I hope is that more and more people start building this robot so that children in London can see a robot in New York, for example. There could be a botnet that people can sign up with all over the world. This is not just a concept, but we’re going to let it go.”
9 Studying the brain behavior of zebrafish
The zebrafish is a fascinating creature. Just like humans, our freshwater friends make predictions about the future to try to stay out of harm’s way. But how accurate are those predictions? In 2021, researchers at the RIKEN Center for Brain Science used virtual reality to investigate zebrafish neural networks.
The scientists set up an aquarium equipped with virtual reality and brain imaging technology. They were especially interested in the telencephalon region of the brain, a key area in decision making. The striped swimmers then had to choose between blue and red VR zones, one for safety and the other for danger. As the team discovered, zebrafish learn to navigate hazards efficiently by creating a “hazard map” in their brains that leads them to safety.
8 Plays the sounds of Stonehenge
As any Spinal Tap fan will tell you, Stonehenge is a place steeped in history. In 2017, a team of British researchers brought that legacy to life, using virtual reality to reanimate the sounds of ancient terrain.
No one is completely sure of the purpose of Stonehenge. But there are several theories, including that it was used for ritual magic. The scientists created a mathematical reconstruction of the English site and modeled the acoustics. They found that the rocks could have resonated with low-frequency vibrations, like wind or percussion instruments. Experts believe that these distant frequencies could have psychologically interacted with people to create a kind of trance.
So was Stonehenge the site of ancient ritual magic? The fact is, we may never know.
7 McDonald’s Happy Meal boxes in Sweden
In 2016, the Swedish division of McDonald’s introduced a bizarre promotion: Happy Meal boxes that transform into VR headsets. All customers had to do was fold along the perforated lines and the cardboard packaging became a pair of Happy Goggles.
The idea was that people would insert their smartphones into this DIY gizmo to browse apps and play games. Slope Stars, a ski simulator backed by the Swedish national team, was the first game released for Happy Goggles. McDonald’s launched the new product in 220 points of sale throughout the Nordic country.
But, as history shows, the idea never really took off globally. Who knows why? Maybe the idea of sticking something on your head that previously contained greasy fries and a hamburger just didn’t sit well with people.
6 Experimental treatment for sex offenders
Virtual reality could be the new frontier in the treatment and reform of sex offenders. So says Massil Benbouriche, a researcher at the University of Montreal, who hopes that technology can help us better understand the impulses that lead someone down that dark path.
The idea is to create what Benbouriche describes as a tech cave: an immersive setup consisting of a VR headset, multiple audiovisual stimuli, and a cube of screens. This allows scientists to create the illusion of reality. Once a participant successfully dives, researchers can investigate their responses to various situations. For example, tracking your eye movements to see where your gaze is going and gauge your arousal.
But the practice is highly controversial. There are ethical concerns surrounding some of the computer generated images shown to sex offenders. And some worry that the participants will soon learn to cheat the system, making it appear reformed while still posing a danger to the world.
5 Recreating the Ayahuasca Experience
Ayahuasca is a South American hallucinogen used by indigenous people for thousands of years. But of late, the drug has caught on in the Western world as well, with tourists flocking to the continent to test its mind-expanding properties.
Except now, the developers say you don’t need to worry about all that traveling. They claim to have created a new virtual reality experience that mirrors reality. Simply plug it in and your digital playback will give you a consciousness-altering journey of your own. Or so they say anyway.
So how good is this VR ayahuasca? Well, according to a journalist who tested it, it was too weird to have any other real effect. As Edith Zimmerman wrote in The Cut, “The experience was so strange and novel that there was no way I could stop myself in a particular situation in my life that had been stressing me out. The movie was too dazzling and weird to think of anything else… It felt like a good vacation anyway.”
4 Help paralyzed patients regain sensation
In 2016, scientists at Duke University announced that, amazingly, they had helped eight paralyzed people regain some muscle control and feeling in their legs. This fantastic feat was produced through a virtual reality training program. All of the patients had sustained spinal cord injuries, which left them paralyzed, some for 13 years. But 12 months of virtual reality training helped restore some somatic sensation, and half of the patients changed the diagnosis from complete paralysis to partial paralysis.
“A previous study has shown that a large percentage of patients diagnosed with complete paraplegia may still have some intact spinal nerves,” explained Brazilian researcher Miguel Nicolelis.
“These nerves can sit still for many years because there is no signal from the cortex to the muscles. Over time, training with the brain-machine interface could have revived these nerves. A small number of fibers may remain, but this may be enough to transmit signals from the motor cortical area of the brain to the spinal cord.”
3 recreate and relive the past
In the age of smartphones, it seems like all of our memories are constantly being recorded, captured forever in the form of video. But imagine if you could bring that video to life and experience moments from the past again. It sounds like something out of science fiction, but American startup Wist Labs claims its app can do just that.
Released in 2023, Wist turns 3D recordings into what they describe as an “immersive experience” using virtual reality or augmented reality software. Users can physically interact with past memories, as shown in a clip of co-founder Andrew McHugh playing with his wife and their baby.
But others have criticized the technology as dystopian, comparing it to minority report and the black mirror episode “Your Whole Story”. That episode is set in an imaginary future where memory implants allow people to rewatch any moment in their life. But hidden truths soon come to life and cause the relationship of the main characters to fall apart.
2 Astronaut training for their mission to space
In 2015, a team of NASA astronauts used underwater virtual reality to prepare for their journey into space. The four are part of a project known as NEEMO 20 (NASA Extreme Environments Mission Operations) that uses HoloLens headsets to facilitate communication between the crew and the control center.
To test the kit, the astronauts spent a month in the water near Key Largo, Florida, reaching depths of 45 feet (13.7 meters). Although the main goal of the mission was to improve communications efficiency, NEEMO 20 even had time to engage in deep-sea exploration. The crew analyzed coral samples from the ocean floor, which helped study the effects of climate change in the region.
1 Play a role in the treatment of phobia
Phobias are a common mental disorder, yet they can often be difficult to treat. But in recent years, virtual reality has been a valuable tool in banishing those fears. The oVRcome app uses a combination of virtual reality exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, and the researchers say the success rate is very promising. The average patient with a common phobia, eg fear of needles, flying or dogs, experienced an average 75% reduction in symptoms after six weeks.
As Cameron Lacey, a leading psychological researcher in New Zealand, explained, “Participants demonstrated high acceptability of the app, highlighting its potential to deliver cost-effective and easily accessible treatment at scale, of particular use to those who cannot access it in person. . exposure therapy to treat their phobias.”
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