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Virtual Rehabilitation: Can VR change our state of mind?

There is much speculation in the world of virtual reality pertaining to its various applications. New uses are being discovered at record speed. The notion that VR is just for gamers has already expired, leaving room for an open-minded tech community to break down assumptions, try out new ideas without judgement, and create democratically. Innovation has never been so profound, in a world that highlights a stark contrast between high technology and poverty, bridging the gap may become one of the most important issues of our time.

Recently we learned that VR is being used in a spiritual context, to meditate – take a second to think about that.

In some respects, technology is no longer separate from the spiritual. It finds itself mimicking the patterns of nature and creating mindfulness experiences for those seeking greater meaning away from the daily grind. We are entering a transition phase, in which we as organic, biological beings literally upload our thoughts and feelings onto a global technological epicentre in the form of social media (think banal Facebook updates). We are integrating technology so seamlessly into our everyday lives that sooner or later it will become, quite literally,  second nature.

This vast topic warrants several volumes of literature, however the focus of this particular article is on the use of VR for another mindful purpose – rehabilitation.

VR can create a spiritual space by allowing the wearer to enter a private, visually attractive, perception altering dimension. This is the perfect space to rehabilitate. The mind can escape a potentially grim reality and enter a space of reflection, experience, and learning. And the best thing about this, in terms of efficiency, is the wearer physically remains in the same space (not necessarily the same place) and next to nothing is spent once initial hardware costs are covered. The wearer is, by virtue of the physical boundaries laid down by VR, admitted to a dedicated ‘healing’ space, a virtual rehab. When battling phobias and anxiety, VR is used as an exposure technique. By confronting the wearer, they have little choice but to respond to the stimulus on screen. Albeit a little harsh, the results are in and they are hard to deny.

A New York Startup named Virtual Rehab has developed a way to rehabilitate prisoners utilising virtual reality. Controversial though the topic may be, there is an evident problem with overcrowding, re-offending, and a lack of education in prisons across the globe, particularly in the US.

Virtual Rehab consists of four arms: formal education, vocational job training, psychological rehabilitation, and correctional services rehabilitation.

Under these headings come various activities based on situations potentially faced by prisoners, such as sexual assault, robbery, drug abuse etc. By creating a risk-free environment, Virtual Rehab allows prisoners the privilege of making mistakes, with punishment being last on the agenda. Prisoners are given the chance to strengthen their academic skills in various disciplines, creating a great platform for them to bounce back from and reintegrate into society.

Christopher Zoukis, currently incarcerated in the Federal Correctional Complex in Petersburg, writes, ‘Those focused on the punishment aspects of prison may see the use of virtual and augmented reality as giving prisoners access to expensive games and entertainment. But in reality, content would be focused on educational and vocational skills, literacy, and programs such as mental health.’

Zoukis makes it clear that Virtual Rehab is no walk in the park, and whilst some may see it as a luxury, it’s a sure fire way to cut numbers and prison and also prevent further crime upon release, as Virtual Rehab CEO Dr Raji Wahidy acknowledges, ‘it’s a win-win scenario. We’re going to lower our taxes, build a better community, build a better future for those who deserve a second chance in life.’

Psychiatrists are an expensive option when it comes to rehabilitating prisoners, and they are not always effective.

Many prisoners report feeling intimated by the experience, which is overall counterproductive. VR creates a level playing field in which the prisoner, the addict, or the abused can explore their own mind without the subjective human influence. Some may consider this unappealing, there are of course unparalleled benefits to the human touch. However, the clarity of objectivity may prove useful to those who are already experiencing their own kind of alternate world in the form of incarceration, as well as those who have rejected traditional methods.

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Written by Hannah Close

Hannah Close is in the Events Industry by day, a Photographer by night, and a Virtual Reality Obsessive 24/7. She currently heads up the VR front at The Old Truman Brewery, East London’s cultural and creative quarter. A self-proclaimed Wonder Junkie, Hannah is also passionate about disruptive technologies and their impact on the human condition.

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