While some might think of immersive movies or fun video games when talking about virtual reality, recent developments prove that this technology is capable of so much more.
The growing use of VR in education and healthcare is already showing promising results – with enhanced memory, focus, and problem-solving skills being just a few of the benefits. However, keeping mentally fit is not only necessary for one’s well-being. Our guest today believes that to be able to use future technologies to their full potential, we should understand ourselves first by addressing our cognitive strengths and weaknesses.
To discuss how virtual reality can be used to strengthen one’s cognitive abilities, Cybernews invited Amir Bozorgzadeh, the CEO and Co-Founder of Virtuleap – a company designing VR games that boost one’s brainpower.
Let’s go back to the very beginning. How did the idea of Virtuleap come about?
I covered virtual reality and other emerging technologies on VentureBeat and TechCrunch for a few years, and then, together with Hossein, we ran a couple of waves of an online VR hackathon. I was exposed to so many different applications for how VR can be a compelling experience and slowly began to understand the benefits of using it in healthcare and education domains. We created the company in 2018 and during the years, pivoted bit by bit into the most current version, with democratizing access to the bleeding-edge of cognitive assessment and training as the main goal.
Can you introduce us to your Enhance app? What are its key features?
The app contains a library of VR games designed by neuroscientists based on standardized neuropsychological assessment tools like the Stroop Test and the N-Back Task. The games are deployed into 3D rendered environments that test and train a range of cognitive abilities, not only just our memory, task switching, problem solving, and information processing skills, but also our motor skills, spatial orientation, and spatial audio awareness. In the end, we make all that game data accessible to caregivers and healthcare practitioners through our enterprise platform.
What are the main health issues that can be alleviated with the help of VR technology?
We are generally agnostic to use cases that range from helping to increase attention levels, address cognitive illnesses, disorders, and learning challenges. We pay a special focus on alleviating the huge impact that cognitive disorders have on society, both in terms of impacting the quality of life as well as the cost to the economy. Alzheimer’s disease alone costs $1 trillion globally, it’s the most expensive disease in the US, costing governments $305 billion, with American households paying 30% out of pocket. There’s no cure. There’s no solution. All we can do is hope it doesn’t happen to us, and if or when it does, drugs can only mask the symptoms. We know that cognitive illnesses can be detected up to 20 years before the onset and even though Alzheimer's disease, for example, has no current cure, early detection and intervention can delay clinical onset.
How did the pandemic affect your field of work? Were there any new features added as a result?
The silver lining of the pandemic is that it accelerated the demand for emerging technologies like VR to help address the sore gap in healthcare and educational services. We observed this across the board, and it certainly has improved our prospects across the investment, commercial, as well as research fronts. It also served as a catalyst to create additional mobile applications to complement our VR solution, such as the “remote control” app, which allows administrators to remotely navigate the user experience in real time through login, games, and reporting by using any 2D-device, be it a laptop, tablet, or smartphone.
Where do you hope to see VR technology being used more often in the near future?
As I mentioned, healthcare and education are the only two critical use cases for VR. When it comes to AR, the applications become pervasive and may accompany us across literally everything that we do, but for VR, the use cases are best served as supplements to our daily lives, such as in the case of giving us an intense but short, i.e. under 20 minutes, experiences that helps us transcend normal limitations of time and space. I do believe VR will have an increasing number of regulatory approvals by authorities like the FDA, raising it to the level of a “gold standard” solution for use cases like pain management, cognitive behavioral modification, and diagnostics. Talking about education, K12 institutes as well as the human performance programs at companies and sporting leagues will have it as part of their staple regimes and training protocols.
Why should more organizations be concerned with providing brain training for their workforce?
Modern neuroscience recognizes cognitive as being inherently embodied. Our autonomic nervous system, vestibular balance system, and our proprioception all believe that virtual reality experiences are real, which means that the data quality is far superior to anything that can be collected by a screen-based device. On top of that, you are able to collect volumetric datasets that can pick up on things that will invariably turn out to be invaluable for the personal interests of the workforce, which in this day and age, needs to be increasingly more adaptive and mentally fit to keep up with the rapid disruption of emerging technologies like AI. We need to understand ourselves with the highest quality of insights, what our cognitive strengths are, what our cognitive deficits are, and how we can address our weak areas so that we can work to become our most wholesome selves.
Besides regular brain training, what other practices do you believe everyone should incorporate into their daily routines?
Regular exercise, at least 5 days a week. Intermittent fasting, for example not eating past 6pm. Make sure, and I mean it seriously, that you are drinking enough water each day. I consider these physical routines and habits to be key mood boosters, and the more vibrant our physiology is, the better our bodies feel, which naturally translates into promoting a more vital conscious outlook to our choices in life.
What predictions do you have for the health sector for the next few years?
The era of the “empowered patient” is upon us. We will continually witness more and more intersections between various emerging technologies like VR, big data, and AI. Their synergies will unleash a range of personal applications that enable and empower us to maximize our potential.
Would you like to share what’s next for Virtuleap?
We are continually building up our library of VR cognitive games, building up complementary modules like a one-time assessment program that you can only complete every 3 to 6 months, and expanding our market access to regions like Asia and the Middle East. This year is going to show that VR technology is not only used for entertainment.
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