Virtual Reality Therapy: Using immersive virtual reality games to help reduce suffering

My colleague Dave Patterson and I originated the technique of letting pediatric burn patients escape into virtual reality during painful medical procedures at Harborview Burn Center in Seattle (with help from Gretchen Carrougher and Sam Sharar, MD.

In SnowWorld, children wearing head tracked immersive VR helmets have the illusion of going into a 3D computer generated world where they are distracted from their burn pain during burn wound care by throwing snowballs at Snowmen, Igloos, Mammoths and Penguins while listening to music by Paul Simon.

SnowWorld is a therapeutic virtual world designed for burn patients, with funding from Paul Allen. SnowWorld is currently on exhibit at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design Triennial in Manhattan, NY. On May 4th, at my presentation at MSR, you will get a hands on immersive demo of SnowWorld via my custom designed table mounted immersive VR goggles. Below is a photo of a burn patient in SnowWorld during wound care while sitting in a hydro tank at Harborview (water-friendly VR).

In another line of research at the University of Washington VR Research Center (HITlab), we are exploring the use of immersive virtual reality to reduce emotional pain caused by terrorist attacks on Americans.

JoAnn Difede and I designed a computer simulation of the attacks on Sept 11th to help people process their excessive emotions associated with their memories of Sept 11th during therapy sessions Immersive virtual reality exposure therapy reduces Post Traumatic Stress Disorder even in patients who had failed to respond to conventional therapy.

Later this year, active duty U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will receive virtual reality exposure therapy to help process excessive emotions and habituate to their memories, as treatment for combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

These projects are examples of how gamer’s PC computers are transforming the way medicine is researched and conducted.

Speaker Details

Prior to immersive virtual reality, Hunter studied human memory, magical thinking, bioelectromagnetics, and during a year at Princeton he studied reality monitoring “how people separate memories of real from memories of imagine events”.Hunter received a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology (human memory and attention) at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1992. Hunter began conducting research on immersive virtual reality at the UW HITLab in Seattle, one of the largest VR research laboratories in the world. This laboratory was founded and is directed by Professor Tom Furness, one of the pioneers of virtual reality (Dr. Furness formerly headed the Air Force Super cockpit project).Hunter’s research is summarized in his Aug 2004 article called “Virtual Therapy” in Scientific American Magazine (see He has published dozens of research papers in medical and computer journals, and has appeared in numerous documentaries including Scientific American Frontiers with Alan Alda, and he put Katie Couric into SpiderWorld on the Today Show in 2006. Hunter was a co-recipient of the Satava Award for medical applications of virtual reality, and he (and Bill Gates, coincidentally) were recently named Fast 50 innovators. Paul Allen is one of the funders of Hunter’s research.

Hunter Hoffman
University of Washington Human Interface Technology Lab
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