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How VR can make things go better in the real world

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Freelance science writer Berly McCoy uses a VR headset and controller to manipulate a virtual human brain at the Maryland Blended Reality Center. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Can being in the middle of an opera take your mind off pain?

Here at the University of Maryland, scientists are studying the therapeutic value of experiencing a virtual-reality recording of Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” The hope is that, at least in some situations, the distraction of an immersive virtual experience can provide pain relief without having to turn to opioids.

“The pathways through which we receive pain are the same pathways through which distraction travels,” computer scientist Amitabh Varshney told journalists last week during a tour of the university’s Maryland Blended Reality Center.

To see whether the idea could work, a research team recorded a performance of “Dialogues” in VR from three vantage points, including a 360-degree camera mounted right on the stage. Headset-wearing users can switch between the vantage points to experience the opera as if they were watching from the orchestra pit or standing in the midst of the action. The experience can be far more powerful than merely listening to audio or watching a video.

“We are working to see how far we can take this,” Varshney said.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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