Virtual Reality: Immerse yourself in health – Q&A with Howard Rose

In his TEDMED 2014 talk, game designer Howard Rose describes the extraordinary power of play in virtual worlds, and shares how virtual reality can harness the innate human power to recover from and prevent illness. We caught up with Howard to learn more about his TEDMED experience and what inspires his work.

Gaming, health, virtual reality, Howard Rose.
“The doctor-centered paradigm of healthcare underutilizes our innate human power to recover on our own, or to prevent illness in the first place.” Howard Rose, TEDMED2014. Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED.

What drives you to innovate?

For me, virtual reality (VR) is the ultimate creative medium. As a designer, I enjoy the challenge of transforming complex ideas into meaningful experiences that bring people insight and joy. Virtual worlds can range from being very realistic to a realm of total imagination. Because VR is so unconstrained, the design process invariably evokes challenging questions about the mind, body and senses that spark the creative conflict which drives innovation.

I’ve devoted my career to exploring the boundless possibilities of technology to solve real world problems, particularly problems in health. We are just beginning to discover how to apply VR to some of our toughest challenges to control pain, treat mental illness and improve rehabilitation.

Why does this talk matter now?

Virtual Reality is poised to revolutionize the way we maintain our health and deliver treatment. It will be targeted like a drug and deliver sustained benefits. But better than drugs, VR can be personalized to individuals’ needs on a moment-by-moment basis. VR will make us more resilient, able to perform at our highest capacity. This revolution will be driven by consumer demand.

Today we are at the edge of a wave of new virtual reality technology that costs a fraction of the systems I used 20 years ago. The VR revolution is amplified by advances in neuroscience and the expanding array of biosensors we wear and carry in our mobile devices. All the elements are finally here to deliver intelligent, compelling virtual experiences that know our strengths and weaknesses and respond to our needs. These technologies are going to help people stay healthier on a daily basis, and lead to new treatments for many conditions that today we suppress or control with pills – like pain, anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress.

What legacy do you want to leave?

I want to give people the tools to unlock their own potential to be happier, healthier and more productive. My goal is to make the virtual reality health games industry bigger than the entertainment game industry. I’ve been working toward that goal for 18 years at Firsthand Technology, laying the groundwork  with basic research and development.

I’m now part of a new venture, DeepStream VR, to focus on virtual reality games for pain relief, rehabilitation and resilience. DeepStream VR’s mission is to reduce the need for opioids in clinical practice, and provide new alternatives for people at home to relieve pain.

Games and Health: Q&A with Brian Primack

At TEDMED 2014, Brian Primack, Clinician, Professor, and Assistant Vice Chancellor of Research on Health and Society at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, shed light on how principles learned from video game design can be used to create more effective health behavior change. We caught up with Brian to learn more about his work and his experience at TEDMED 2014.

How healthcare can learn from video games. Jerod Harris, TEDMED2014. Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED.
The video games industry is really good at getting people to perform certain tasks and to stick with them for the long haul.” Expert design including instant reward, social networks, and intermediate milestones can effectively improve patient outcomes. Photo: Jerod Harris for TEDMED.

Personally, what do you prefer: “old-school” video games, or the most recent technology? Why?

I prefer old-school video games. Part of it may be nostalgia. However, I also think that sometimes, simpler graphics and can translate into a richer imaginative experience. For example, I still sometimes play old Infocom games. Infocom created brilliant text-only interactive fiction games starting in the early 1980s.

Do you encourage your children to play video games?

My kids (ages 7 and 10) play video games, and I often play with them. Some of our favorites are logic, simulation, and/or physics games such as Civiballs, Meeblings, and Bloons Tower Defense. What I encourage even more than playing, however, is creating video games. Both of my kids can do basic programming on MIT’s Scratch platform and have created simple games of their own.

Beyond health and medicine, what other applications or fields do you see gamification having a large impact on?

Gamification may be very valuable in education. I think there is an important balance to be struck, though. I think it’s great to leverage the tools we have now to make learning more engaging. However, we also want to encourage people ultimately to learn for its own sake, not just because they are getting points or incentives. I don’t think these positions are mutually exclusive, but balance is important to think about as we develop new educational tools.

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

I really appreciated the opportunity to reconnect with some past colleagues; it was also invigorating to meet people whose work I had admired from afar. I caught up with Lee Sanders, MD, MPH, Chief of the Division of General Pediatrics at Stanford; he’s well-known for his work on promotion of child and family health via health literacy.

What’s next for you?

Our Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health continues to research both the positive and negative influences of media and technology on health outcomes. We develop and test interventions to support positive attributes of media and technology while also buffering their potential negative influences.