doctor wearing VR goggles (angellodeco/

Better research results with VR

Although virtual reality is slowly making its way into the mainstream, some fields have been using the technology since the 1990s and early 2000s.

“At that time, there were actually really good head-mounted display systems available, there were good systems for tracking user movement, but everything was really specialized, so everything was very expensive.” Susan Persky, director of the Immersive Virtual Environment Testing Area at the National Institutes of Health, said at a recent Smithsonian Associates lecture.

One field that could afford the investment was the health sector. Today VR is increasingly used by doctors to view patient body scans to train for surgeries, but scientists like Persky and her colleagues at NIH have been using VR in research for years.

VR offers several benefits to health research. It is portable, so it can be taken to the subject; it immerses the subject entirely in the virtual environment; and it produces a lot of data.

Persky has used virtual environments to study how a patient's body weight influences medical students' assumptions about that patient and the choices they make for care. In one experiment, individual students were placed in identical virtual environments with patients, some of which were overweight and some not.

Thanks to VR’s ability to track the movement of its users and provide that as data points, Persky was able to determine that the students looked at the overweight patient’s face less often than the face of the other patient. A similar study looked at how differences in how skin color affected patients' treatment.

Virtual environments have also been used for experiments that previously have been hard to accurately measure, such as a recent study on how information about childhood obesity later in life affects parental feeding behavior.

Researchers gave some parents the information on the effects of obesity, but sent all the parents to the same virtual buffet where they could tell down to the calorie what the parents were putting on their child's plate. Such detailed analysis is difficult in real life -- it creates a lot of waste and measurements are not as accurate.

Besides helping measure and study personal interactions, VR is also proving useful for visualization in the research community, assisting NIH scientists in producing better vaccines. Researchers can look at VR models of proteins to get “a better idea of how it all goes together," Persky said.  The technology "gives them a better chance of finding weaknesses in the protein armor.”

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.

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