Helpful distraction

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 July, 2008, 12:00am

Research will examine how virtual reality games can minimise anxiety and pain in children with cancer

Researchers are to study how new 'virtual reality' technology can help chronically sick children in Hong Kong undergo intensive medical treatment. The first local study of its kind is expected to begin later this year.

William H.C. Li, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong's nursing department, is leading the research programme which will focus on children with cancer, and will examine how the distraction of playing virtual reality games such as PlayMotion can minimise anxiety and even reduce pain.

'There have been quite a lot of studies in the west on this issue, but nothing yet in Hong Kong,' said Dr Li. 'Most have found [virtual reality games to be] effective in distracting children from pain during invasive medical procedures such as intravenous injections. They found it a useful non-pharmacological alternative to drugs.

'Our principal hypothesis is that by concentrating on playing games, children feel more relaxed and less stressed, with a resulting consequence of pain relief.'

Some studies have even suggested that the new technology hastens recovery and significantly 'improves survival rate from threatening diseases'.

The suffering of child patients extends far beyond diseases themselves.

As Dr Li explained: 'Because their natural resistance to sickness is relatively low under treatment such as chemotherapy, and they are frequently in hospital, they can't live normal lives, going to school every day and mixing with other children in playgrounds. As a result, they also suffer from psychological distress, even though their chances of survival from the treatment are far better these days. They lose self-esteem, and have severely restricted social lives. We believe that virtual reality technology can help boost their self-image.

'A great benefit is that the technology is interactive and can be played by groups, which is far more socially beneficial for them than playing computer games on their own. This is what makes PlayMotion so different.'

At the Institute of Vocational Education (IVE), the technology is being applied for both multimedia education and entertainment purposes. Design students, for instance, used it as a backdrop to a catwalk fashion show during a graduation ceremony. The technology is also newly integrated into courses for training digital entertainment technicians.

'In the future, they may get the chance to use it, working in the entertainment industry,' said Wong Pak-kay, acting senior lecturer at IVE's computing and information management department.

'There are a lot of potential commercial applications for this interactive technology in many fields, especially entertainment and exhibitions because it is such an eye-catching special effect for audiences.

'As a uniquely organic way of controlling graphics, it is very promising technology and I think we could see the next generation extending to PCs and iPhones.'

The Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention is meanwhile in the process of adopting the technology for presentations to schools as a more 'informal' way of getting its message across to students.