SnowWorld, developed at the University of Washington HITLab in collaboration with Harborview Burn Center, was the first immersive virtual world designed for reducing pain. SnowWorld was specifically designed to help burn patients. Patients often report re-living their original burn experience during wound care. SnowWorld was designed to help put out the fire. Our logic for why VR will reduce pain is as follows: Pain perception has a strong psychological component. The same incoming pain signal can be interpreted as painful or not, depending on what the patient is thinking. Pain requires conscious attention. The essence of VR is the illusion users have of going inside the computer-generated environment. Being drawn into another world drains a lot of attentional resources, leaving less attention available to process pain signals. Conscious attention is like a spotlight. Usually it is focused on the pain and wound care. We are luring that spotlight into the virtual world. Rather than having pain as the focus of their attention, for many patients in VR, the wound care becomes more of an annoyance, distracting them from their primary goal of eploring the virtual world.
In a preliminary case study, two patients with severe burns went into SpiderWorld. They saw a virtual kitchen complete with kitchen countertops, a window with a partly cloudy sky, as well as 3-D cabinets, and doors that could be opened and shut. Patients could pick up a teapot, plate, toaster, plant, or frying pan by inserting their cyberhand into the virtual object, and clicking a grasp button on their 3-D mouse. Each patient also physically picked up a virtual wiggly-legged spider possessing solidity and weight, using a mixed-reality force technique developed by one of our team members. Patient 1 had 5 staples removed from a burn skin graft while playing Nintendo, and six staples removed from the same skin graft while in VR. He reported dramatic reductions in pain using VR. Patient 2 was perhaps a bigger challenge, since he had a severe burn covering over 33% of his body. He showed a similar large, but less extreme, pattern (reduction of pain during wound care while in VR compared to while playing a video game).
Hunter Hoffman designed and Jeff Magula built a similar fiberoptic VR helmet for distracting burn patients who are in the challenging environment of sitting in a tub of water (with optical engineering advice from HITLab research professor Eric Seibel). The custom fiberoptic VR helmet carries light (not electrons) to the patients eyes (sister of the magnet-friendly helmet described earlier).
Pending donor funding, a new version of SnowWorld called "SuperSnowWorld" will be even more distracting and will hold burn patients attention for longer, more frequent burn wound treatments.