This past October, Elizabeth Amini of the Trojan CEO Network and ACTA hosted a virtual reality showcase and panel at the USC Marshall School of Business, focusing on VR in the wellness space. The panel included Studio Transcendent’s Co-Founder, John Dewar; Director of the Brain Mapping Society, Vicky Yamamoto; Cosmo Scharf of VRLA & Visionary VR; as well as Alex Marchetti of AppliedVR, Studio Transcendent’s partner in the field of VR for healthcare.

The article below contains audio clips as well as transcripts from the panel.

Introductions

Alex: “We use our products a lot with kids---chemo, shot, I.V..  [There is a] large body of research [regarding] VR as a tool for pain, anxiety management. Now the technology is accessible.”

Cosmo described how Visionary VR is letting people create, storytell, act, improv, and share within the world of VR using their Mindshow platform.

John spoke about the unique approach to authentically relieving anxiety for patients by surrounding patients with environments and phenomena that naturally make people feel safe, including the soundtrack for Guided Relaxation composed by James Hopkins, a sound healer who uses pythagorean monochords. These large instruments are one of a kind and cost several hundreds of the thousands of dollars to commission through a cello maker in Germany. The perfect fifths used in these instruments correlates to human relaxation, James found, through his extensive study of Pythagoras. This type of specificity, John describes, is why the experience has been so effective, finding not only unique, but powerful new ways to augment an experience like Guided Meditation in this new medium.

John joked, but with sincerity, that VR experiences, like anything else, can be stressful with timelines and budget restrictions. The punchline being that he could never get too stressed out when he was working on the project because he was testing Guided Relaxation so often, which has achieved up to a 60% reduction in patient’s anxiety.

John described the relationship between suspension of disbelief and the concept of presence in VR, where people allow themselves to be convinced that they are actually part of the virtual world.

Studio Transcendent Co-Founder John Dewar 

Studio Transcendent Co-Founder John Dewar 

VR in 2020/2030

Alex Marchetti described how VR’s main benefit to society may not just be in entertainment, but could very well be found within the wellness space.

Cosmo Scharf: “Hardware will be much different---like iPhone looks nothing like the original cell phones. It’s kind of impossible to imagine the experiences, however. Experiences are very hard to forecast for 20 years forward. They will likely be way, way, way different than what we can imagine today. VR will be way more main street. We’re only 3-4 years into modern consumer reality for VR. Developers are very much still figuring out what VR is good for. In 20 years, we will have a variety of applications that people will come back to, to do work, and find value. Right now, it is very much a novelty with very few applications that will warrant repeat use today. In 20 years that will certainly change.”

Vicky Yamamoto: “By 2020, VR will be a 30-40 Billion dollar business or more. It is clearly a game changer. I see that VR’s main use is in entertainment and gaming industry, but it’s great that it’s being used in medicine, psychology, and social work. Surgeons are more and more interested in using VR to train themselves, especially in brain surgery. Technology can also be used for the patients as we see. They can also be used for diabetes studies to encourage people to follow good eating habits and live an active lifestyle.”

John Dewar: “From Oculus Connect, the chief science officer laid out a future projection where in 2020, we will see double the resolution, and more will be wireless. I think we’ll be able to work full time in VR, which is very interesting. There is a program called Big Screen which is a co-working space in VR. I saw someone on Twitter who had logged 900 hours on there already.  You have to deal with a great deal of discomfort if you want to deal with that right now, but some people do. I think that’s a good prediction. In AR, Magic Leap is promising amazing things; so is Hololens. These could potentially replace our smart phones and smart watches. Things could end up being merged between VR & AR, so we’ll see. Once VR comes on-line there is a lot outside of entertainment. For brain surgery, you could be doing brain surgery and looking at a 3d brain map at the same time, so there is a lot of potential there. In 10 years, no one really knows, but my prediction is that we’ll all have them in our houses. Maybe it’s an utopia, maybe a dystopia. We’ll find out.”

Elizabeth Amini: “Two demos blew my mind:  For diabetes, the patient gets to talk to themselves with their disease five years progressed, and they get to talk to themselves. That kind of thing. The person says what they wish they had known five years earlier. Eight out of ten people that did this interaction ended up becoming more compassionate towards their future selves and changed their lifestyles much quicker. The other is where an engineer in one city could guide a lower skilled worker to fix something like a plane, where the lower skilled person is pretty much the hands for the expert in a different city. They’re saying VR is going to be incorporated into all aspects of life.”

Where do you think the opportunities for students are today, and what areas are oversaturated?

Cosmo Scharf: “Most people are making games. I would say that’s already saturated. If you’re looking to get into VR, there are tons of low hanging fruit, useful applications, things that people want to come back to. That’s what we’re doing with MindShare---something people want to come back to over and over again. Come to VRLA, of course, and there are a lot of other meet ups. There are meetups for VR on meetup.com. Also visit Oculus Reddit and Vive Reddit.”

John Dewar: “I think this is true with any industry. Don’t wait and depend on school to start you out. Just start. The truth is, in my experience, they don’t pay too much attention to your experience; they want to know what you can do...it’s very hard to tell how people are going to perform before you work with them. Get out there and do some projects and build a portfolio. You have to have enough intrinsic enthusiasm about it to go out there and build stuff. Otherwise, maybe you’re better off finding another field.”

Where is the money coming from in VR right now?

Cosmo: “Venture capital. The market right now is still pretty small, so making solid revenue to sustain a company is challenging.  The real trick is figuring out how to sustain yourself until the market shows up---a year or two or three.”

John: “VRLA has doubled every time it happens, and that’s amazing.  We’re right on the cusp. But, you have to find your way through this. Our company is unique in that we have survived purely on revenue. It really is about applications. With Applied VR, we have worked with a company that is doing research applications. It is kind of still in this corporate application world, not exactly consumer focused right now. Some are doing architecture, which is extremely valuable. Also, design. Faraday Future is doing VR instead of making the actual car. SpaceX is using it. There are tons of applications. Now that the technology is cheaper and more accessible, many architects can afford it.”

Alex: “It has been challenging at times to get a health care system to adopt a VR technology...to get it into their workflow. But once you communicate the benefit, that’s where the opportunity is. There are a lot of companies and brands that are eager to use the technology for marketing and advertising. There are also grants, which we are applying for---addiction treatment focused, for example...we participated [in the Techstars accelerator] with 10 other companies in the digital health space, and we have a core team coming from a business background. The Healthcare system is very complex to understand, and through the Techstars accelerator, we knew much more about the space. I can’t begin to say how much we learned during that period. It was helpful to get an understanding and resources for raising money to grow our business.”

Student Questions

What are your perspectives on the potential moral issues with virtual reality? More immersive? Drawing people in too much? Thoughts?

Cosmo: “People creating the experiences have an unprecedented responsibility for people’s mental health. You are putting their consciousness into an experience, in a completely new way that has never existed before. There are horror applications that will freak people out, but as the tech improves, developers need to be conscious about the kinds of experiences they are making.”

John: “[Consumer VR] hasn’t been studied and [violence in video games] has been a controversy…it’s very expensive to [create] these experiences and study them. It means we have to be responsible and work our way [through these issues] down the road and not go whole hog.”

What was the VR experience that made you want to pursue VR?

Cosmo: “I was interested in VR before I tried it. Half Life 2, but it made me pretty nauseous. It was probably when I started reading someone’s blog post about what ended up becoming the Vive. In that moment, I knew I needed to figure out how to get myself involved with this.”

John: “I just imagined what it would be like. I saw the first rift prototype, and I called my friend Ian who writes our VR Digest and works for Upload VR, and asked him to try it out [Oculus was on his beat as the Orange County Register tech reporter, and he was blown away].  I was excited to put in an order for the first Oculus dev kit. The rest is history. You start building stuff and keep going.”

I don’t have any experience in coding. What is the best way to for me to meet people to work on an idea with me?

Cosmo: “There are plenty of tutorials on YouTube.”

John: “If you’re looking for people to collaborate with, that’s a problem we all have. There are very talented students at USC, find them. Community forums, Unreal Engine forums. I would start there. And start at USC.”

In the medical space, who has accepted VR the most?

Alex: “Kids love it. Kids that have grown up with the technology. In general, it has been more difficult on older patients. But we’ve actually seen good results with older patients. For specific procedures or areas, we’re using it for chemotherapy. They have to be there for a long time and it’s uncomfortable. Pain management, patients recovering from painful procedures, like spine patients.”

Vicky, regarding lack of resources in surgical training. What is the adoption look like for surgical training in VR?

Vicky: “I am not a surgeon but a scientist. But we can create experiences to help this. Since we are in the research and medical field, VR is more constricted towards training. When it comes to using it in the OR, surgery room, it appears AR is more useful there.  I think AR will be bigger than VR for this setting.”

John: “There are a lot of different terms like ___ reality. Virtual reality, augmented [reality], digital [reality], mixed [reality], augmented virtual reality. Basically, augmented reality and mixed reality are two very similar terms. Mixed reality is overlaying the information over the real world [as if it is part of the world]”

John went on to explain that people are still debating the correct terminology and that Michael Abrash had just tried to coin “augmented virtual reality” to describe a headset that covers your eyes but brings the world in via cameras.

Rehab - can you comment on any available projects in the world of rehabilitation, physically and cognitively and if there is room for partnership?

Alex: “One area we have looked into is how can we use it for certain rehab exercises, stroke rehab.  Also for sports.”

Addiction - how far along is that in this technology?

Alex: “We are applying for a grant there, it is extremely new and we believe that’s an area where VR could add value. Therapy, group therapy, or allow someone to access an AA meeting. But it’s extremely new for us and an area that we just started exploring.  There are exposure and phobia experiences out there. For addiction it does not currently exist.”

Parents used to say ‘don’t sit too close to the tv’, with VR, there is a huge tv screen right in front of your eyes. Is it going to be damaging?

Cosmo: “Could be. No idea really. The problem with current VR screen technology, it is a fixed distance that your eyes are looking at, which is not how it looks in reality. There will be technology that will make it more comfortable. We could be frying our brains right now but who knows.”

John: “That’s the secret sauce that Magic Leap has is they have a technology that helps with that.”

Elizabeth: “I asked an ophthalmologist and he said it depends on frequency of use and how long each use it. He thought in acute care, it’s not going to be harmful. If you’re there playing video games for hours at a time it could be harmful. He was more concerned about the light from the screens screwing up your circadian rhythms and screwing up your sleep. Sleep is when you repair your body. The main worry is someone playing for hours at a time and not being able to repair themselves. Very very few people have an answer to this. We will see what happens.”

John: “Some people have been trying to break records. Chris Miranda did it for 100 hours straight.”

Cosmo: “I personally spend most of my day staring at a computer screen or phone, and most of you guys do as well. Whatever damage is done, is done there. I’m not more concerned about what VR will do for us.”

John: “It can actually help with certain conditions. Helping children that need to [strengthen their ability to focus their vision]. They have to stare at 3D images for a certain amount of time and you can strengthen eye muscles.”

Cosmo: “There is a guy who is legally blind who was able to use VR to see again. There are certain use cases where it could be a positive thing.”

Where will VR go with distributors and portals. And if you have read Ready Player One, do you think that’s what VR could turn into?

Cosmo: “Well Oculus home and Steam are pretty centralized places to go get VR content today. But with metaverses, hopefully something like that will take off. I have read Ready Player One. I think the future that it presents is certainly impossible; it’s somewhat dystopic. The physical world is kind of falling apart and then there is this utopian metaverse that people can access in VR. These portrayals of VR in fiction and sci-fi. They’re often dystopias because they are made for entertainment and you need to have a negative or evil force to make it an interesting story. That’s an argument for the implausibility for VR becoming a zombifying thing. But honestly no one has any idea as to where it will be in 10 or 50 years.”

In Hong Kong they have a cycling class in VR. Do you know of anything like that for fitness?

John: “There is a sub-reddit dedicated to VR fitness where they have developed an exercise regime that is centered around various Vive games like with Fruit Ninja.  I think it’s a huge area; it will probably make a ton of money. Someone on reddit said in a few years gamers are going to be the fittest people on earth, and I agree with that.  All the stuff at Oculus connect was touch based. Like frisbee, ultimate frisbee in space. It will become a much more physical activity.”