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New technologies in TR: How virtual reality is being introduced in the field

Posted by Amanda Embree on 2018-05-03

Technology is forever changing and progressing – at a rate that many of us struggle to keep up with. Love it or hate it, it is something that we have to accept as a part of our world. On a “love it” note, technology is something that can help improve the delivery of therapeutic recreation services, such that it is accessible, it can be used to improve physical functioning, cognitive functioning, and teach various life skills. A particular technology that is gaining popularity right now is: Virtual Reality (VR).

I recently posted about Virtual Reality on my Instagram page (@recreation4health) where I cited a segment done on Global News about a project called “The WAYBACK”. The WAYBACK is a series of virtual reality films intended to act as a reminiscence tool for individuals living with dementia and their caregivers. The films recreate historical and popular events from the past to help elicit positive memories and emotions for the participant. Interestingly, the segment discusses a Canadian researcher that is looking at the clinical benefits of VR for dementia, including its potential to lower blood pressure and decrease symptoms of depression. Other studies have also mentioned that individuals with dementia felt a sense of control and enjoyment when using VR. Considering that symptoms of dementia may be depression, difficulty regulating emotions, and a loss of independence due to changes in cognitive and physical functioning, VR may be a suitable TR intervention to achieve client goals when noting the outcomes mentioned above. Not only could VR be used as an intervention method, it also has the potential to be used as an assessment tool. This technology may give the TR specialist insight into how the individual interacts with their environment and what elements may cause distress. For example, being able to alter the VR environment gives us more detailed knowledge about how others influence interactions and reactions from the individual with dementia (such as how the individual reacts to tone of voice and body language). In a Long-Term Care setting, this helps the TR specialist understand how to stage the environment when running programs to prevent distress and meet individual needs.  

man with virtual reality glasses on smiling with hand out in front

Global News also recently did a segment on how VR is being used to assist people struggling with addiction at the Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centre in Erin, ON. It is the first treatment centre in the country to use VR cue exposure, which is a fully immersive technology that involves visual, auditory and olfactory cues. For example, the client may view a scene at a bar, hear a glass clinking while the smell of rum is wafted through the hardware. Each scene is catered to the individual based on their history of addiction and personal triggers. This technology offers an opportunity for clients to practice strategies they’ve learned to cope with triggers while they are in a safe environment. This could potentially be used as a TR intervention strategy to prepare our clients for community reintegration. For example, a client has explored healthy recreation activities to replace going to the bar but is concerned that they will relapse upon entering the community. VR gives us an opportunity to better prepare our clients for these situations and create a smoother transition into the community. This is another brilliant example of how we may start seeing the use of VR in TR!  

In closing, I am curious to see how the use of this exciting technology will progress and change the way we deliver our services. Although I imagine it will be costly (considering its very recent introduction), I think it is important to focus on the fact that this technology is another tool to add to the TR practitioner toolkit which can improve the lives of our clients. Every time I see something in the news that is relevant to TR, whether it be research or new tools, I take it as an opportunity to show people what we do, why it is important, and why I love what I do!

If you are curious to view these news stories and other resources, take a look at the links below:

Canadian Study – VR and dementia: https://globalnews.ca/video/4064316/canadian-study-using-virtual-reality-to-treat-dementia

VR helping those struggling with alcohol addiction – Global News https://globalnews.ca/news/4095827/virtual-reality-therapy-helping-people-struggling-with-alcohol-stay-sober/

Garcia, L., Kartolo A., Méthot-Curtis, E. (2012). A discussion of the use of virtual reality in dementia. Retrieved from: http://cdn.intechopen.com/pdfs/39040/InTech-A_discussion_of_the_use_of_virtual_reality_in_dementia.pdf