Virtual Reality for Therapy and Rehabilitation

Virtual Reality for Therapy and Rehabilitation

In 2003, the U.S.-Israel Science and Technology Foundation (USISTF) funded a pioneering project that would apply virtual reality (VR) to rehabilitation programs for survivors of terrorist attacks or those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The project was based on the original research and software program developed by Prof. Tamar Weiss, a leading rehabilitation researcher and chair of the Laboratory for Innovations in Rehabilitation Technology at the University of Haifa together with Dr. Albert Rizzo of the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California (USC).  The USISTF grant they received allowed these two senior researchers to work face to face, culminating in successful commercialization of their software, titled Virtual Iraq.

Virtual Iraq uses video game style graphics and a VR headset to immerse the user in a simulated environment mimicking their combat experience in Iraq.  While the soldier or person under treatment relives scenes of wreckage and casualties, a therapist can alter the simulation from a desert drive in a Humvee to a street in Baghdad’s hot-zone.  Virtual Iraq gives a sense of control over a traumatic situation so that the patient can incrementally recover from physical or mental distress.

This USISTF initiative is now being expanded upon ever further, incorporating patient tracking and feedback.  A recent study showed that 17% of troops who returned from Iraq screened positive for PTSD.  Similarly, PTSD has been identified in thousands of troops that have served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in the last few years.  Currently, the use of virtual reality has the best documented track record in the scientific literature for Anxiety Disorders such as PTSD.

News of USISTF’s Virtual Reality Program has generated interest abroad with Coalition Forces returning with PTSD.  In addition, both University of Reading in the United Kingdom and University of Esbjerg in Denmark are using the Virtual Iraq software at their medical schools, with promising results.

The social and economic benefits of the technology developed for Virtual Iraq are far reaching.  Through broader use and study of virtual reality in therapy and rehabilitation, we hope to show that individuals receiving this kind of treatment subsequently rely less on social benefits, have reduced employment turnover and less periods of lost income.  Virtual reality has indeed brought a new dimension to therapy, besides allowing it to be done quickly and efficiently, in a way that will continue to revolutionize treatment in the future.