Imagine that instead of dreading going to the dentist, you look forward to it like a walk on the beach—because that's actually what it feels like. Dentists around the world have been working to achieve this using virtual reality headsets and video content, sometimes comparing the experience to putting "blinders" on a horse. The idea is that if your senses are otherwise occupied, you're less likely to focus on the procedure at hand. But a new study, published today in the journal Environment & Behaviour, suggests that wearing an Oculus Rift while seeing the dentist is about more than just distraction from what's going on in your mouth.
A team of researchers at the Universities of Plymouth, Exeter and Birmingham in England partnered with a dental practice in the city of Devon to test out two VR experiences: one that took patients through a virtual city, and one that allowed them to walk around a virtual reproduction of Devon's own Wembury Bay. Patients wore a VR headset and used a hand-held controller to either navigate busy blocks or a grassy, hilly seaside, past grazing horses and lapping waves.
The patients who "visited" Wembury reported much less anxiety and more positive memories of the experience than those who visited the city or had a standard dental visit. This was consistent with the Exeter researchers' recent studies on the effects of marine environments on stress.
"The users are free to move and explore wherever they so wish and can choose a location to stay and, for example, watch the sun go down—the virtual world is time-synchronized to the real world," says Robert J. Stone, director of the human interface technologies team at the University of Birmingham. His team designed "Virtual Wembury" to work with various kinds of controls, including gesture recognition technologies like headsets that can track head movement, and even a foot-pedaling system that can be used in other medical contexts.
The experience does have its limitations, though. "There are 'ends' to the world," says Stone, "and we had to implement virtual 'force fields' to stop folks walking into the sea or throwing themselves off the cliffs."
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