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Ten Mind-Bending Uses for Virtual Reality
Virtual reality technology has revolutionized the world of gaming. But these incredible computer-generated worlds have far more uses—and far weirder uses—than just gaming platforms. How about a study into the neural responses of zebrafish or reproducing an Amazonian hallucinogenic ritual?
Well, in this list, we delve into some of the most impressive and bizarre examples of virtual reality. It’s definitely been put to some surreal uses, but some pretty fascinating ones, too—like treating paralysis and investigating mental illness. The ethics of some of these advancements are still a matter of discussion, but one thing is for sure: Virtual reality really is changing the world.
10 Taking Sick Children on a Trip to the Zoo
Nobody likes to see children in pain. As horrible as life can be for a kid in a hospital, virtual reality might provide some respite. In 2015, a project called Robots for Good announced plans to help young patients at Great Ormond Street Hospital, London, to visit the zoo.
Using 3D printing technology, the group is creating life-size human-like robots that can be controlled remotely by a child in the hospital. The android then wheels around the zoo, relaying everything it sees via a VR headset. This way, sick kids can feel like they are traveling around the zoo and meeting the animals.
The technology involved is almost entirely open source, which means anyone with the right hardware and know-how can get involved and make it their own. As Richard Hulskes, one of the key founders of Robots for Good, explained, “My vision with this project is that we create the prototype, create the idea, and then just let it go. We want others to pick it up.”
“What I hope is that more and more people start building this robot so that kids in London can check out a robot in New York, for example. There could be a network of robots that people can check in with all across the world. This isn’t just a concept, but we’re gonna let it go.”
9 Studying the Brain Behavior of Zebrafish
Zebrafish are fascinating creatures. Like humans, our freshwater friends make predictions about the future to try to stay out of danger. But how accurate are those predictions? In 2021, researchers from the RIKEN Center for Brain Science used VR to investigate the neural networks of zebrafish.
The scientists set up an aquarium equipped with virtual reality and brain imaging technology. They were especially interested in the telencephalon region of the brain, a key area in making decisions. The stripy swimmers then had to choose between blue and red VR zones—one for safety, the other for danger. As the team discovered, zebrafish learn to efficiently navigate risks by creating a “hazard map” in their brains that leads them to safety.
8 Reproduce the Sounds of Stonehenge
As any Spinal Tap fan will tell you, Stonehenge is a place of immense history. In 2017, a team of British researchers brought that legacy to life, using VR to reanimate the sounds of the ancient grounds.
Nobody is entirely sure as to the purpose of Stonehenge. But there are various theories, including that it was used for ritual magic. Scientists created a mathematical reconstruction of the English site and modeled the acoustics. They found that the rocks could have resonated with low-frequency vibrations, like wind or percussion instruments. Experts reckon these far-out frequencies could have interacted with people psychologically to create a trance of sorts.
So, was Stonehenge the site of ancient ritual magic? The fact of the matter is we may never know.
7 McDonald’s Happy Meal Boxes in Sweden
In 2016, the Swedish arm of McDonald’s unveiled a bizarre promotion: Happy Meal boxes that transform into VR headsets. All customers had to do was fold along the perforated lines, and the cardboard packaging turned into a pair of Happy Goggles.
The thinking was people would then insert their smartphones into this DIY contraption to browse apps and play games. Slope Stars, a ski simulator backed by the Swedish national team, was the first game launched for Happy Goggles. McDonald’s launched the new product across 220 outlets throughout the Nordic country.
But, as history shows, the idea never took off globally. Who knows why? Maybe the idea of sticking something on your head that previously held greasy fries and a burger just didn’t sit well with people.
6 Experimental Treatment for Sex Offenders
Virtual reality could be the new frontier in treating and reforming sex offenders. So says Massil Benbouriche, a researcher at the University of Montreal, who hopes the technology could help us to better understand the impulses that lead someone down that dark path.
The idea is to create what Benbouriche describes as a technological cave—an immersive setup consisting of a VR headset, multiple audio-visual stimuli, and a cube of screens. This allows scientists to create the illusion of reality. Once a participant is successfully immersed, researchers can investigate their responses to various situations. For example, tracking their eye movements to see where their gaze goes and measuring their arousal.
But the practice is highly controversial. There are ethical concerns around some of the computer-generated images being shown to sex offenders. And some worry that participants will soon learn to trick the system, making it appear as if they are reformed when they still pose a danger to the world.
5 Recreating the Experience of Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca is a South American hallucinogenic used by indigenous people for thousands of years. But in recent times, the drug has gained a trendy status in the Western world, too, with tourists flocking to the continent to try out its mind-expanding properties.
Except now, developers say you don’t need to bother with all that travel. They claim to have created a new VR experience that mirrors the real thing. Just plug in, and their digital reproduction will give you a consciousness-altering trip of your own. Or so they say anyway.
So how good is this VR ayahuasca? Well, according to one journalist who tried it out, it was far too odd to have any other real effect. As Edith Zimmerman wrote in The Cut, “The experience was so weird and novel that there was no way I’d be able to dwell on a particular situation in my life that had been bringing me stress. The film was too dazzling and strange to think about anything else… It felt like a nice vacation, anyway.”
4 Helping Paralyzed Patients Regain Sensation
In 2016, scientists at Duke University announced that, incredibly, they had helped eight paralyzed individuals to regain some muscle control and feeling in their legs. This fantastic feat came about through a virtual reality training program. The patients had all suffered spinal cord injuries, which left them in a paralyzed state, some for as long as 13 years. But 12 months of VR training helped restore some somatic sensation, with half the patients changing diagnosis from complete to partial paralysis.
“One previous study has shown that a large percentage of patients who are diagnosed as having complete paraplegia may still have some spinal nerves left intact,” explained Brazilian researcher Miguel Nicolelis.
“These nerves may go quiet for many years because there is no signal from the cortex to the muscles. Over time, training with the brain-machine interface could have rekindled these nerves. It may be a small number of fibers that remain, but this may be enough to convey signals from the motor cortical area of the brain to the spinal cord.”
3 Recreate and Relive the Past
In the smartphone era, it feels like all our memories are constantly recorded, captured forever in video form. But imagine if you could bring that video to life and experience moments from the past all over again. It sounds like something out of science fiction, but U.S. startup Wist Labs claims their app can do just that.
Launched in 2023, Wist turns 3D recordings into what they describe as an “immersive experience” using either virtual reality or augmented reality software. Users can physically interact with bygone memories, as shown in a clip of co-founder Andrew McHugh playing with his wife and baby.
But others have slammed the technology as dystopian, comparing it to Minority Report and the Black Mirror episode “The Entire History of You.” That episode is set in an imagined future where memory implants allow people to re-watch any moment from their life. But hidden truths soon come to life that leads the main characters’ relationship to fall apart.
2 Training Astronauts for their Mission to Space
In 2015, a team of NASA astronauts took VR underwater to prepare for their voyage into space. The four are part of a project known as NEEMO 20 (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) that uses HoloLens headsets to aid communication between the crew and the control center.
To test out the kit, the astronauts spent a month in the water near Key Largo, Florida, reaching depths of 45 feet (13.7 meters). Even though the main aim of the mission was improving the efficiency of communication, NEEMO 20 even had time to squeeze in some deep-sea exploration. The crew analyzed coral samples from the ocean bed, helping study the effects of climate change on the region.
1 Playing a Role in Phobia Treatment
Phobias are a common mental disorder, and yet they can often prove difficult to treat. But in recent years, virtual reality has been a valuable tool in eliminating those fears. The app oVRcome uses a mix of VR exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, and researchers say the success rate is highly promising. The average patient with a common phobia—for example, a fear of needles, flying, or dogs—saw an average reduction of symptoms of 75% after six weeks.
As Cameron Lacey, a leading psychological researcher in New Zealand, explained, “Participants demonstrated a strong acceptability of the app, highlighting its potential for delivering easily accessible, cost-effective treatment at scale, of particular use for those unable to access in-person exposure therapy to treat their phobias.”