The Extended Reality wave has opened up new possibilities throughout society. This includes the healthcare sector, where several AR and VR projects are well underway to shape the way we treat the mental and physical health of children, young people and the elderly in the future.
All over the world, mental health has come into focus. One of the most prevalent phenomena in this context is anxiety, and it is estimated that in Denmark alone up to 350,000 Danes suffer from some form of anxiety. This includes children and young people who find it difficult to be at school or with their peers.
The VR company Konfront has set out to change that.
The people behind it have developed a knowledge and education platform that professionals working with mentally challenged children and young people can use as part of their treatment for anxiety. This could be anyone from educators and resource teachers to psychologists and liaison officers. Too many children and young people suffer from anxiety to an extent that prevents them from carrying out normal everyday activities.
“In social constellations there is often an expectation of how you should be. For example, at school. For some children, these contexts can be challenging, making them so anxious that they actually end up avoiding school. This is a growing trend and, among other things, something we are trying to address through our platform and VR technology. Indeed, the virtual world can have a liberating effect for some, where you dare a bit more,” says Anne Kristine Schwartzbach, CEO and founder of Konfront.
The solution is a series of VR films and experiences interacting with a wealth of subject material on a digital learning platform. Through it, anxiety sufferers can learn, in a safe environment and with the help of a professional, how to deal with specific situations that might otherwise provoke stress or anxiety. Riding the bus, getting a vaccination at the doctor’s or witnessing someone being bullied.
“Anxiety is often linked to situations that stress or pressure the pupil. When the brain is working overtime, it’s hard to learn new and more constructive strategies. As a result, inappropriate behaviour often becomes self-reinforcing and makes the child or young person feel even worse if the negative spiral is not broken early on. However, through a safe environment, an educator or contact person can expose the child to a scenario in a stress-free way. The brain then learns that it’s not dangerous, and from there we build a bridge to reality with a lot of subject material and a debrief – a follow-up talk about the experience,” says Anne Kristine Schwartzbach.
Parallel studies on the precise impact of the tool can be extremely difficult, because how do you measure whether a child has improved his or her ability to take the bus without experiencing anxiety? Yet almost all professionals report that it is easier to engage and motivate the pupil, and that interest in talking about what is difficult develops much more quickly. And if you ask the founder of the VR company, she has no doubt why the solution works.
“The digital world allows us to see and cultivate the potential just below the surface of the child or young person. With virtual reality, we can create lifelike simulations of many different situations, allowing the child to become familiar in a safe environment with a range of situations that would otherwise be challenging. It also means that many will more quickly gain the confidence to overcome anxiety and become comfortable in the many constellations of everyday life,” explains Schwartzbach.
So far, 70 films and 300 experiences have been made available on Konfront’s platform. The company is currently working with 31 social services such as schools and residential centres across 16 municipalities and several private services to improve the mental health and well-being of challenged students.
AR game universe activates hospitalised children through virtual ‘monster plants
At the Rigshospitalet on Østerbro in Copenhagen, they don’t just treat the sick. They are also developing the idea of how a hospital should be designed in the first place. The result is the Mary Elizabeths Hospital project, in collaboration with the Capital Region and the Ole Kirk Foundation – a building that will provide treatment for children, young people and pregnant women, as well as research and education. All in one place.
“The aim is to bring all children together at Rigshospitalet. The specialists must come to the children – not the other way around. In this way, we can rethink hospital culture and procedures to create a new coherent experience with the person and family at the centre and with the fewest possible changes and transitions,” says Kikko Siggaard, project manager at Rigshospitalet.
She is leading the ‘SpilleRiget’ project, which is investigating whether games with Extended Reality technology can support treatment and create a better hospital experience for hospitalised children and young people. First up is the game Monster Gardener, in which 7-12 year old patients grow their own monster plant through a series of interactive AR adventures.
“One of the reasons we work with Augmented Reality is the physical marketing. It allows us to change the experience of a hospital or a patient’s room with a lot of interactive elements that children and young people can actually see and play with in the game,” says Siggaard.
The game works through a digital AR layer superimposed on reality. Through a series of image tags, the player can go on adventures in the hospital corridors, equip their monster plants with weapons, hats or coloured crystals and meet other hospitalised children and young people who are also on the hunt with the game in hand.
“Even though more patients have PlayStation, phones and tablets in their rooms, many are still bored. They don’t know what to do when they are hospitalised. This is partly due to inactivity and feeling disconnected from friends and family. That’s why Monster Gartner both motivates movement and helps children meet each other in the hospital,” says Kikko Siggaard.
The idea is based on a more holistic understanding of care and treatment, which research shows can be helped by the environment, activity and social life in hospital. So the new technologies are an obvious way to ensure that the hospital experience is positive from a child’s perspective – and from an adult’s perspective.
“When you’re 11 years old and you’re in hospital with an illness, it can be very difficult to share with friends what’s going on. So it’s good to have experiences from the hospital that are easier to share and that show the hospital from a completely different side. At the same time, we know that keeping the body going can have an impact on treatment. That’s why we’ve also started a PhD project to investigate the potential of digital games to reduce inactivity during hospitalisation,” says Kikko Siggaard.
Rigshospitalet plans to roll out Monster Gartner to hospitalised children and young people during March this year, and also hopes to add more features in the future, such as multiplayer and chat. In addition, SpilleRiget also has games with AR technology aimed at the 13-18 age group and the 3-7 age group on the drawing board.
VR movies give older people back their spark of life
Staying active becomes more and more important the older you get. Research shows that exercise and social interactions are crucial to older people’s health and overall quality of life. But the desire can be negligible when your body aches, your joints creak and the view from your exercise bike is grey rain.
VR company Syncsense has set out to change that.
“Many elderly people lack the motivation and the spark to keep themselves going. And that’s despite the fact that physical activity is actually part of the treatment for many patients and citizens with elderly diseases. With our VR technology, the user gets a true-to-life experience and can forget about time and space. An active breathing space, simply,” says Simon Bruntse Andersen, co-founder and CEO of Syncsense.
Many hospitals and homes for the elderly are designed in a way that does not encourage an active lifestyle. Often conventional exercise equipment sits collecting dust in a corner. But how do you make use of existing facilities without spending a lot of resources on modernisation?
Syncsense’s answer is a VR platform with 360-degree video of natural surroundings through which the elderly move on an analogue exercise bike. The universe requires nothing more than the startup’s custom-designed smart sensors on the pedals and a pair of VR goggles. This means the bike ride feels like taking an interactive walk in a forest, zoo or other virtual environment.
“We make exercise fun and motivating by letting the user experience movies or virtual environments from nature and cities that can evoke memories. The VR universe is driven by physical work – for example, riding a bike on an exercise machine. In this way, we support the qualified training that healthcare professionals already help patients and citizens with as part of their treatment or rehabilitation,” says Simon Brunt- se Andersen.
An important part of healthcare and active lifestyles for older people is also the social and cognitive. Therefore, the user meets people on his way in Syncsen’s virtual universe – as well as healthcare professionals and family can follow the journey on a tablet next to it.
The advantages of the company’s solution are that it does not require new training adapters or more resources in the form of physical and occupational therapists, nurses and doctors’ time at the patient or citizen’s side. That’s why Syncsense is keen to make VR technology as widely available as possible.
When medicine fails, avatar solution steps in
Technological breakthroughs often mean being able to make processes faster, smarter or better. But sometimes they can be so game-changing that we can go places we’ve never been before. Uncharted territory.
AR and VR production studio Khora can attest to that. In collaboration with Region Hovedstaden Psykiatri and a number of psychologists, they are behind the Healthcare Challenge project, which uses a special VR exposure therapy to treat patients with auditory hallucinations. People who are plagued by constantly hearing often malicious voices.
“It can be a bit difficult to invite your psychologist into your head. But with our simulation program and voice modulation, patients can confront the voices while reducing the control they have over their lives,” explains Simon Lajboschitz, CEO of and founder of Khora.
The project targets the particularly treatment-resistant, where medication has so far not worked. The solution is to create a VR avatar in collaboration with a psychologist through Khora’s technology and voice modulation module. In this way, the participant can meet and talk to his/her voices in a safe environment and eventually regain control over his/her life.
“People suffering from auditory hallucination sometimes have accompanying visual hallucination of what the voice looks like. And those who don’t see the voice clearly usually have a physical representation of it. But with our solution, using virtual reality, the patient can encounter the voice and, in stages, demystify it and reduce their fear of it,” explains Lajboschitz.
Auditory hallucinations are usually difficult to control through conventional treatment, but the early results from the first courses have shown that VR exposure therapy can alleviate the symptoms of people who have the disorder. At the same time, the technology can be adapted in collaboration with the psychologist – depending on the patient’s fears and relationship to the hallucinations. For example, the environment and distance to the avatar can be graduated and adjusted from time to time. In this way, treatment can be taken in stages.
“This technology is not a magic cure, but a way for people with mental challenges to take back control of their lives. And this treatment is a good example of some of the things that are suddenly possible with VR technology. We can create
a universe and open up solutions and experiences that were previously impossible,” says Simon Lajboschitz.
So far, a Consisting Challenge research project of 266 patients in three Danish regions is underway with the VR therapy. And although the final results won’t be available for a few years, Khora and the Capital Region hope that the treatment can be widely implemented in Denmark and become a new standard in psychiatry.
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