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In Virtual Reality, San Diego Scientist Sees Tool To Help The Visually Impaired

Video by Katie Schoolov

Gaming, social media, major league sports…lately, entertainment companies of all stripes have been investing in virtual reality. The idea is to make people feel like they're actually inside a video game, or sitting courtside watching their favorite team. But virtual reality can be more than just fun and games, according to a UC San Diego doctor using a cheap new headset to help his patients. KPBS science reporter David Wagner has the story.

Virtual reality can be more than just fun and games, according to a UC San Diego doctor using a cheap new headset with patients in mind.

Lately, entertainment companies of all stripes have been investing in virtual reality, hoping to immerse players within video games, and to put fans courtside at major league events.

But virtual reality can be more than just fun and games, according to a UC San Diego doctor using a cheap new headset with patients in mind.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Melinda Person demonstrates how a virtual reality headset was used for a recent glaucoma study, May 21, 2015.

Dr. Felipe Medeiros is an ophthalmologist and a professor who treats glaucoma patients like 63-year-old Melinda Person. He's trying to develop better ways of spotting balance problems in his patients.

Person knows first-hand that glaucoma affects balance as well as vision. About a year ago, she was walking to the grocery store two blocks from her home in downtown San Diego. Just like she'd done countless times before, she crossed the street and stepped onto a familiar curb.

At least, she thought she did.

"I'm seriously telling you, I thought I was stepping on the curb," she said. "It bothers me to think about it right now."

The curb was actually a step away, and she lost her balance.

"The next thing I knew, I was down on the street."

Luckily, Person didn't sustain any major injuries from the fall. But she said it was a harsh reminder that for people with glaucoma, daily life can be dangerous.

Glaucoma attacks the optic nerve. The disease has taken 86 percent of Person's peripheral vision.

"So I only have what I can see in front of me," Person said, describing her tunnel vision. "When I'm looking at you, you're pretty much all I see."

And that's only after proper treatment — had Person not received care, she'd be blind by now. These days, she doesn't go anywhere without a cane. She uses it to avoid tripping on things just out of her view.

Falls are a leading cause of death in older people with visual impairment, according to Medeiros. Today's clinical tests aren't doing a very good job of identifying the patients most at risk of falling, he said.

"We need to have tests that are more realistic," he said. "That's where I got the idea of incorporating virtual reality technologies. Because I wanted to actually have an immersive environment that would better simulate the challenges patients face."

He found that immersive environment in the Oculus Rift.

It's basically a pair of goggles strapped over your face. Two little curved screens fill your field of vision with 3D video. Turn your head and the images turn with it, tricking you into thinking you're inside another space.

Oculus plans to release the Rift to consumers early next year; the company says the cost of the headset — plus the computing power needed to run it — shouldn't total more than $1,500.

Last year, Facebook bought the company behind this headset for $2 billion, betting big on its promise to transform video games and how people interact online.

Meanwhile, Medeiros found a different use for the gaming goggles. In a recent study, he used an Oculus Rift to put glaucoma patients like Melinda Person inside a virtual tunnel.

He strapped them into a safety harness to prevent any falls in the real world, and told them to fixate on a little dot at the end of the tunnel.

Then, the edges of the virtual tunnel started to move, making patients feel like they were being pulled back and forth through the tunnel.

The patients stood on a special, sensitive platform that recorded their every little wobble. The data showed that glaucoma patients wobbled more than normal. And greater wobbling correlated with a greater history of falls.

Compared with other ways of predicting glaucoma patients' susceptibility to falls, Medeiros said, "It performed better than the conventional test that we use in clinical practice."

With some refinement, Medeiros thinks a test like this could be an affordable way to help eye doctors spot balance problems early, so patients can get help to prevent devastating falls later on.

Virtual reality is not new in Medeiros's research. In previous studies, he put patients on a virtual freeway to test their driving abilities. What is new is the price tag.

The Oculus Rift headset only costs a few hundred dollars. That's pennies compared to what Medeiros paid for his high-fidelity car simulator.

"It's expensive," he admits. "It costs around $300,000."

Scientists no longer need six figures to explore virtual reality. They've been able to use the Oculus Rift in studies on pain management and PTSD therapy.

"The technology is there," Medeiros said. "We need to find uses for this technology that will benefit the population as a whole, going beyond the video game use."

The Oculus Rift fit into glaucoma so seamlessly, at first Melinda Person didn't realize it was a piece of video game hardware.

"I'm not really a video gamer." She's played a few video games with her grandchildren. "But they're not playing anything like this!"

Person knows how important it is for people with glaucoma to be aware of balance issues. She said if virtual reality can help doctors put patients like her on sure footing, she's all for it.

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