Vets Dive into New World with VR - Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas
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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Vets Dive into New World with VR

Army Veteran Kenneth Smith, a resident in Houston VA’s Community Living Center, immerses himself in a virtual reality fishing game.

Army Veteran Kenneth Smith, a resident in Houston VA’s Community Living Center, immerses himself in a virtual reality fishing game.

By Todd Goodman, Public Affairs Specialist
Thursday, June 4, 2020

“Got one!” said Army Veteran Kenneth Smith. He just landed a zebra tuna from a tropical paradise while using Oculus Go, a virtual reality headset. It’s the latest technology Recreation Therapy uses to provide entertainment to Veteran inpatients.

Recreation Therapist Jason Pitts had the gaming system at his previous VA facility and thought it would be a welcomed addition to Houston VAMC. He introduced it two weeks ago and it’s been a hit with Veterans in the Community Living Centers.

Oculus Go is a virtual reality gaming system that gives users an immersive feeling of actually being in an adventure. Besides fishing, other programs include skydiving, riding roller coasters, bungee jumping, concerts, and even a full tour of the Louvre museum where users feel they can reach right out and touch priceless works of art. But it’s fishing that has grabbed Smith’s attention.

“It’s like being there,” said Smith. “It’s real. You can get physically involved in it. Your hands get moving and you really get into the game. I think it’s very good for hand-eye coordination. I’m here in the hospital 24/7 and when I get that game it’s like being home again. I love it.”

As Smith uses the control to cast the line into the lagoon, which is surrounded by mountains and lush vegetation, he can target specific schools of fish to give himself a better chance of landing a big one. When a fish bites, he uses the control to set the hook, but must use caution or the fish will break free. It’s harder than it looks and in the beginning it can be tricky to land one. Sometimes, all one catches is a soda can. But Smith has it down. And the views are incredible. Any direction he looks, the view continues.

Scenes on the motorcycle program give the user a dizzying sensation as the viewer is whisked through tight turns on a winding road that runs between two mountains. But it’s not just fun and incredible views that make Oculus Go an important rec therapy tool. It has therapeutic benefit as well—in particular, pain.

“It’s probably the ultimate sensory immersion device,” said Pitts. “The reason it works so well is that it’s like a hack for your brain. The way pain works is that it takes conscious attention to be able to process pain. When you are immersed in the environment on the virtual reality system, it requires so much of your brain, it doesn’t really leave you any room to process pain sensations. It has been proven to be highly effective in pain management.”

According to a study from the National Institute of Health, “Participants immersed in VR experience reduced levels of pain, general distress/unpleasantness and report a desire to use VR again during painful medical procedures.”

Another application Pitts likes to use it for is behavioral management. Some Veterans have feelings of depression or other cognitive deficits that cause them to act out. Playing the game can foster feelings of enjoyment, which aids in behavior management.

“Participating in activities you enjoy tends to reduce stress and feelings of depression,” he said. “The goal is to promote overall wellness for the Veterans, whether it be physical wellness, mental wellness, or social wellness. Utilize the person’s leisure interest as a means of intervention.”

And Pitts loves seeing his patients engaged and smiling.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” he said. “It’s good to know that I’m providing them with enjoyment, especially during this time. Due to COVID-19 they can’t see their families right now, can’t leave the units, they can’t socialize anymore in groups, so just to see them participate in a virtual activity that they like makes me happy.”

The Vet population Pitts works with are predominately older. He has to educate them on how to use the system and sometimes it takes some prodding before they’ll try it. Once they do, though, they love it.

“Got another one!” exclaimed Smith. “Two-and-a-half pounds.”

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