I explore media in transition. My research encompasses film, video, print, digital arts, and the web. I'm interested in what artists and writers are doing and in what critics and scholars are saying.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Virtual Healing: Remediating Video Games

As I recounted a few weeks ago, I had a dream in which VR technologies were used to help victims revisit crime scenes and thus relive their experiences (see “Virtual Reality and Memory: Revisiting Crime Scenes”). After briefly researching comparable applications in real life, I wondered how VR activated subjects’ memories in a broader context, beyond criminal investigations and trials; psychotherapeutic uses sparked my interest. I hadn’t thought about these questions again until yesterday (July 27th), when I happened to catch “Virtual Healing for Soldiers” on Life & Times, a public affairs television program I don’t usually watch. (I was dubbing my personal videos to DVD and had the TV tuned to KCET, the PBS affiliate in LA; the segment aired in between dubs. I mention this coincidence only to stress the chance operations at stake.) Since I watched only the end of the report, I went to the Life & Times Web site for more information. There I was able to listen to the nine-minute segment in RealAudio and also read a written transcript.

From Sam Louie’s report, I learned that Dr. Jim Spira, a staff psychologist at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, is using virtual reality therapy to treat marines suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their service in Iraq. According to Louie, “The government estimates that eighteen percent of American troops in Iraq will suffer from PTSD.” While connected to sensors that monitor their vital signs, patients wear VR headsets that transport them to a simulated Fallujah, which Dr. Spira can customize incrementally with various stimuli, e.g., explosions. The objective of the therapy is to simulate warlike environments, in this case Fallujah, so patients can re-experience the traumas responsible for their conditions and with the doctor’s help learn to cope.

Dr. Skip Rizzo and Jarrell Pair, researchers at the USC Institute for Creative Technology, developed the immersive virtual reality software that Dr. Spira has been using to treat PTSD. Rizzo and Pair based the program on the award-winning X-Box video game “Full Spectrum Warrior,” which they and their team at ICT had originally designed as a training tool for the Army; it was intended to have “the same holding power and repeat value as mainstream entertainment software” (ICT Games Project).

This wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I wondered about the use of VR technologies in psychotherapy, but the overall concept seemed relevant to my interests, so I did some background research on the project. Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a research scientist with a PhD in clinical psychology, put the work in perspective during a ten-minute conversation with Kitty Felde, host of the LA radio program Talk of the City. An audio copy of “Virtual Reality War Games Being Adapted to Treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can be heard online. (The show aired on March 29th.)

The project also has been discussed in several papers by Rizzo and Pair, including “A Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy Application for Iraq War Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: From Training to Toy to Treatment (2005).

Jarrell Pair specializes in the design and development of virtual and augmented reality systems. His career spans the arts and the sciences. Besides developing some projects for the band Duran Duran, he worked at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Graphics, Visualization, and Usability Center (GVU) as project manager for the development of “Virtual Vietnam,” a VR simulation of combat created to treat Vietnam veterans coping with PTSD.

At another time I hope to investigate further Rizzo and Pair’s work on immersive VR therapy for patients suffering from combat-related PTSD. In particular I’d like to understand the role that memory plays in the healing process. I’d also like to find out whether any similar immersive VR systems have been custom-designed for individuals who are not suffering from serious psychological disorders but who simply want to remember their pasts—or to reinvent their life stories. I suspect that such projects would attract a range of people, from artists to writers to oral historians. I’d welcome leads.

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