VR has been around a long time and it isn't going anywhere. It's seen plenty of evolutions in terms of hardware and now that there's working headsets that aren't reminiscent of torture devices, the software can really shine and show us everything VR is capable of.
At the mention of virtual reality, Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, most people automatically think games. That's a fair assumption considering the head mounted displays (HMDs) are definitely intended for fun and exploration.
While there's a growing number of VR games and experiences that boast educational purposes there are quite a lot of other applications VR is being used for in the medical field with mental health, environmental conservation, journalism and more.
Because of its ability to completely immerse you and give you a whole new perspective of the world you're placed in, the use cases are pretty endless. Here's a look at a few of the groundbreaking ways VR is being used.
Treating mental health
PTSD, depression, anxiety and paranoia are all just a few areas that VR is aiming to tackle. Over the years, research has been amassing piles of evidence discussing how effective VR is when applied to the mental health field.
The Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California led by Dr. Skip Rizzo uses 'virtual reality exposure therapy' to aid patients suffering from post-traumatic stress.
The site states, "The current applications consist of a series of virtual scenarios specifically designed to represent relevant contexts for VR exposure therapy, including Middle-Eastern themed city and desert road environments.
"In addition to the visual stimuli presented in the VR head mounted display, directional 3D audio, vibrations and smells can be delivered into the simulation."
The therapist is also there to guide the patients and rather than picturing scenes in their heads, VR provides a controlled and safe way to relive experiences.
While the simulations can be used for free at clinics, Dr. Rizzo still recommends a therapist to help in the recovery process - meaning VR is a tool and not meant to replace a human doctor.
Last year, a study was published in Ophthalmology that demonstrated how virtual reality was used to find out whether the risk of falls were related to people with glaucoma. Researchers based at the University of California, San Diego said VR provided a more realistic testing environment compared to traditional testing methods for glaucoma.
The researchers hope that future studies using this virtual reality-based system will help ophthalmologists better understand the relationship between risk of falls and glaucoma.
VR is being used to help surgeons too outside the mental health field. Last December, a Google Cardboard providing a 3D image of a heart helped a surgeon in Miami visualize what he needed to do in order to operate on a baby.
Even more recently, the very first 360-degree live stream of a surgery happened. Anthony Karydis, founder and CEO of Mativis, the company that helped surgeon Dr. Shafi Ahmed film, spoke with us before the event saying:
Essential read: Behind the first 360 degree livestreamed operation
"The technology allows us to do many things, much more than we are doing at the moment. The use of a second camera was the furthest in complexity Dr. Shafi was willing to go at this stage. It is still the first time something like this has happened and quite naturally and logically he wanted us to keep it simple."
While adding in VR didn't specifically help the surgery, it does set a precedent for how medical students can tune in and learn, which brings us to the next topic.
VR in schools and universities
In the future, filming surgeries in VR or live streaming can help medical students all over the world learn, especially if they do not have access to prestigious schools.
Dr. Ahmed sees both AR and VR as tools for teaching surgery on a global scale, especially in lower income countries. Talking to Wired, he said,"Thousands of medicine students can be trained by someone in Harvard, or in London, or in Rome. All they need is a smartphone's 3G or 4G connection." And an affordable, easy to make Google Cardboard of course.
The educational benefits VR are immense and many companies are taking notice. Once again, Google and its Expeditions program have taken nearly half a million kids to different places. It can't take the place of a real life field trip, but heading to Mars is still a neat experience.
Bringing awareness to environmental conservation
Wildlife shows on television can be given a second life with the help of virtual reality. There are already 360-degree shorts of the wilderness popping up from National Geographic and as time goes on, you should expect longer pieces of VR exploration.
There are still hurdles to jump through, like creating rigs that are durable enough to withstand Mother Nature, but groups like the Zoological Society are undeterred and chugging along in their attempt to bring nature closer to people.
Other groups like Animal Equality and Condition One have created a gut-wrenching film piece on factory farms. Called iAnimal, it shows you in gory detail what it's like inside a pig slaughterhouse. It's a tough watch, but one that's necessary. After all, you should know what exactly it is you're buying and eating.
In your shoes
It's a no-brainer that the immersive experience of VR can help people see what it's like in different situations. Along with iAnimal, there are many eye-opening films and simulations cropping up to give new perspectives.
Excedrin, the company that makes painkillers for migraines created an AR/VR migraine simulator to show just how awful the experience is - and to prove to naysayers that migraines aren't just a simple headache.
"Once the non-sufferer experienced what [their friend/relative] goes through during a migraine, their increased understanding led to a reaction full of empathy and love, which, until now, was harder to identify," Excedrin says.
The Guardian's 6x9 short documentary wants to give you the same kind of revealing moments by showing you what it's like as an inmate in solitary confinement.
Watch here: The Guardian's 6x9 documentary
Sitting inside a cell, you listen to the accounts of former inmates as you observe your claustrophobic surroundings with your mental state slowly degrading 'over time.' If you don't feel anything after watching these films, it's time to start questioning your life.
VR in the military and space
VR's ability to produce large-scale 3D environments not only offers astronauts a glimpse of what life is like in space, it can also help them do their jobs both on Earth and out among the stars. Training programs for both future and current explorers are made possible without having to step foot out of our atmosphere.
The same can be said for soldiers prepping for real life (and dangerous) situations. Collette Johnson, Plextek's Medical Business Development Manager told us: "When the Oculus Rift arrived at the office we immediately saw an opportunity. It was user-friendly, compact and designed to be used by consumers."
Using the Rift provides a simple and inexpensive way to deploy simulations, all with familiar equipment many soldiers can easily grasp.