There’s a lot to be said for virtual reality (VR). It’s hard to describe the experience, the immersion and the realism to someone who’s never tried it.

You’ve probably heard of Pokemon Go, the augmented reality (AR) app based on the successful Japanese video games/anime/card games. If you haven’t you must be living on the moon (where some of the popular Pokemon come from, so even then you have no excuse).

It’s pretty simple, it uses your location to display a map with your avatar walking the same roads as you. The only difference being that the popular pocket monsters appear in its path, but worry not because you can now bring them into the real world using the camera on your smart phone to catch it wherever you are.

This is the first taste the wider public’s had of anything to do with virtual or augmented reality and it’s smashed any expectations. Servers went down, online communities spawned and the younger generation are actively going on walks.

As successful as this is you can be forgiven for thinking augmented reality and its sibling, virtual reality, belongs to gamers. But, and we mean this in the kindest possible sense, you’re wrong. Utterly wrong.

Virtual reality and healthcare

Probably the biggest industry also benefiting from the easier access to VR is healthcare. You wouldn’t really think it, though, would you?There are studies going on across the world to see how this new tech allows us to tackle challenges a lot of people are facing. For instance, in Sweden they’re taking on phantom limb pain with AR. Their current test subject, Ture Johanson, can move the limb that’s overlaid onto reality – giving him the sensation of control. Then there’s a programme to help with PTSD called Virtual Iraq. It’s currently employed in America to help veterans and service men and women to come to terms with their PTSD by using prolonged exposure therapy.

But, right here in the UK, there’s another study yielding some VR healthcare results. Researchers at Oxford University are working with patients from the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust to treat severe paranoia.

And the results, so far, are positive.

Severe paranoia

Patients were split into two groups and placed in environments that provoked social anxiety and paranoia – a crowded lift and a crowded train carriage. One group was asked to react how they would usually but to tolerate the feelings of anxiety for longer. Group two was asked to react differently – lowering the defences they would use in this situation and acting in an opposite manner. For example, going up close to other people in the virtual world, making eye contact and holding their gaze.

The results showed over 50% of patients who lowered their defences no longer suffered from severe paranoia by the end. 20% of the other group also no longer suffered from it by that same time.

Of course, there are limitations to the results. So far it’s only included a sample of 30 people, when they’re broken into two separate groups it’s obviously less. There’s also nothing to suggest these results last beyond the testing environment and, if they do, how long-term they are. While VR is  a logical stepping stone in a journey like this it’s still very different from the real world.

Even so, it’s exciting to know these results happen because it’s progress and it’s possible purely because of the unprecedented advancement in VR technology.

Virtual reality and other industries

Elsewhere other industries are enthusiastically welcoming VR. Forensic science courses are recreating crime scenes for its students. They have access to ‘evidence’ and scenarios they otherwise wouldn’t have.

Tackling education from a different angle is Google. Some of their employees used their 20% time to create a programme that scans in works of art. This allows people to view them up close – revealing previously unknown details. Not only is this handy for the casual viewer, but academics, spending their careers studying masterpieces, are now learning details of their much admired paintings.

Already we’ve learnt more about Van Gogh’s The Starry Night (the bare pieces of canvas suggest he was in a rush). So, imagine what we can learn about those not so easy to access – the Sistine Chapel for example.

This is by no means everything that VR’s capable of at the moment. There’s much more out there as people continue to push and test the limits – seeing exactly what we’re capable of with this technology extending our reach. There’s a lot to be excited about and there will undoubtedly be more applications for it in the future. But right now is a good starting point. It’s inspiring innovation and allowing people to think of new ways to tackle extremely stubborn issues. For things like the healthcare industry, VR can only be a welcome opportunity.