It’s extremely gratifying to work for a company that helps so many people do so much good. And what could be more important than relieving the pain of a child who has suffered serious burns?
The University of Washington’s Dr. Hunter Hoffman, a virtual reality researcher, and Dr. Dave Patterson, a pain and hypnosis expert, set just that challenge for themselves when they began to research how to reduce pain without drugs. They hypothesized that if patients could let their minds go somewhere else while their wounds were cleaned and dressed, the distraction would significantly reduce the pain.
They developed the first iteration of the environment they call SnowWorld, a glacial land populated by virtual snowmen, penguins and mastodons, with funding from Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and the National Institutes of Health. The original SnowWorld proved traditional video game technology could help, but Drs. Hoffman and Patterson thought a more immersive experience could help more. They decided to redevelop SnowWorld as a 3D Virtual Reality (VR) environment.
For help, they turned to University of Washington colleagues Howard Rose and Ari Hollander, founders of Firsthand Technology. Firsthand is a “serious games company” focused on developing medical training applications and treatment applications for maladies such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We rebuilt SnowWorld with 3DVIA Virtools from Dassault Systèmes to make it simpler to modify,” Hollander says. “The flexibility of 3DVIA Virtools allows SnowWorld’s creators to more easily test different experimental hypotheses and identify factors relevant to better pain control.”
The deeply immersive nature of SnowWorld built in 3DVIA Virtools improved the level of pain relief and made it easy for the University of Washington team to alter the scenario to test different hypotheses, Hoffman says.
“3DVIA Virtools is versatile enough to let us explore a variety of options without investing so much time and effort testing out an idea that we feel locked into keeping the change regardless of its usefulness,” Dr. Hoffman says. “Virtools has become an integral part of our research team’s success.”
Programming speed is another key advantage, allowing Firsthand’s clients to see their concepts evolve quickly. Realism, too, contributes to SnowWorld’s success.
“In the 3DVIA Virtools version of SnowWorld, the snowflakes are just incredible,” Dr. Hoffman says. “The magical 3D snowflakes help patients feel ‘there’ in SnowWorld, which leads to grater pain relief.”
Patients report that they perceive less pain when immersed in SnowWorld, allowing doctors to treat them with significantly lower levels of potentially addictive painkillers than previously possible. Best of all, MRI scans prove patients don’t just perceive less pain – in many cases, their brains actually experience 50 percent fewer pain messages than those same patients experience without SnowWorld.
It’s exciting to see the way doctors are using 3D immersive technologies such as 3DVIA Virtools to improve patient treatments. What other sorts of medical treatments can you imagine with the power of 3D?