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When Virtual Reality Becomes a Life Saver

The cheapest VR out there has already saved a life.
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(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

This year is already shaping up to be a breakout one for virtual reality, with (expensive) VR kits on deck for PlayStation gamesNational Football League broadcasts, and at-home entertainment. But perhaps the most stunning step forward in applying VR just came from the world of medicine. Last month, a surgical team used Google Cardboard—cardboard VR goggles that work with smartphones and sell online for around $5—to save the life of a baby born with half a heart and only one lung. On Wednesday, the infant, Teegan Lexcen, was taken off a ventilator and is reportedly breathing on her own. CNN reports:

[Pediatric cardiologist Juan Carlos] Muniz bought a Google Cardboard device and had been playing with it in his office ... now was the time to use it for real, he decided.

Using an app called Sketchfab, Muniz downloaded images of Teegan's heart onto his iPhone and showed them to [cardiovascular surgeon Redmond] Burke.

They were similar, yet different from 3-D images they'd been using on computer screens. With the goggles, it was possible to move around and see the heart from every angle—to almost be inside the heart checking out its structure.

Burke looked through the Google Cardboard, and visualized what he could do to fix Teegan's heart.

Surgery offers wide-open terrain for VR technology, usually gushed over for its ability to build both realistic and fantastical experiences. In our November/December 2015 issue, Rachel Nuwer reported on the growing use of VR to create experiences for immersive journalism—"a new form of storytelling that uses virtual reality to insert readers directly into a scene." Media teams have used VR to simulate, for example, a bombing in Syria, giving their audiences a more personal glimpse into the war tragedies that break headlines. Proponents believe these simulated experiences have the capability of transforming distant-feeling facts into events demanding emotional investment:

Virtual storytelling's greatest asset is likely its ability to create a shortcut to empathy due to the way it fools our brain into believing we are actually witnessing an event. When done well, [Stanford psychologist Jeremy] Bailenson says, it can provide a transformative and potentially mind-changing experience, from observing the effects of ocean acidification first-hand to standing on a rooftop as Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters rise.

This ability to appeal to empathy gives VR real chance to impact policy, namely by shaping behavior. The Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which Bailenson runs at Stanford, has already found that virtual experiences can have real-world influence, both good and bad, as Bonnie Tsui reported for Pacific Standard in 2013:

When examining how virtual reality might augment human capacities—one of his pet interests—Bailenson has looked for ways the technology might be used to prime good behavior, either in the form of a paternalist "nudge" or as a vehicle for plain self-help. In one study, for instance, Bailenson's team found that if you met your older self, you'd save more money for the future than you would otherwise.... But for all the ways virtual reality and avatars might conceivably be used to stoke good behavior, it's just as easy—if not easier—to imagine ways they might be used for commercial or political ends.

Bailenson's lab has put VR's potential to work with an array of projects, including probing social attention difficulties among schoolchildren with autism and teaching financial literacy to community college students.

The successful use of a mass market VR kit for surgery shows that these technologies can immediately impact not just our perception of the world, but also our role in it. No wonder medical schools have started using VR to train their students in surgery (with VR systems in development specifically to improve orthopedic procedures): The cheapest VR out there has already saved a life.


Since We Last Spoke examines the latest policy and research updates to past Pacific Standard news coverage.