How Virtual Reality Is Saving Lives Both On and Off the Battlefield

By Pragati Verma, Contributor

Imagine being immersed in a war scene in a desert in Iraq, where tanks and armored cars are rumbling forward, belching fire. Suddenly, the vehicle in front of you explodes and you see insurgents, emerging almost out of nowhere, ready to take your life.

Seeing insurgents with loaded guns, hearing shots fired and smelling gunfire in a simulated virtual reality battlefield through a VR headset can be frightening for some. But military veterans are turning to such VR-empowered exposure therapy to confront the trauma of combat—both before they experience it, and afterwards to recover from it, in a safe and controlled environment.

“At first, it might seem counter-intuitive to make someone go back and relive a traumatic experience,” Albert “Skip” Rizzo, associate director for Medical Virtual Reality at University of South California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, explained at the Dell SXSW Experience in 2017. “But if you do it at a gradual pace, with a good clinician in a safe environment, patients get better with time. They might get anxious at first, but anxiety goes away as they continue.”

Treating Emotional and Physical Wounds

After working with the U.S. military for nearly two decades to use VR-based exposure therapy to train and treat U.S. soldiers and veterans, Rizzo is a foremost expert in the transformative technology.

The two programs Rizzo works with confront unique problems. Bravemind, an exposure therapy, simulates experiences reported by soldiers to help them confront and process difficult emotional memories.

“We’re not erasing memories or anything, people still remember what they’ve been through but, those memories don’t have the same emotional power as they had before treatment.”

– Albert “Skip” Rizzo, Research Director at USC Institute for Creative Technologies for Medical Virtual Reality

Today, at the USC Institute where Rizzo resides, he also works with the military to create realistic war-like experiences to train soldiers for the physical, social, and emotional stress of the combat before they go to war.

The pre-deployment resilience training tool known as Strive—Stress Resilience in Virtual Environment—aims to teach effective emotional coping skills and better prepare service members (prior to deployment) for the stress of combat. By teaching these coping skills ahead of time, researchers hope soldiers will be more able to manage challenging situations as they occur on the field.

Several arms of the military are using it to train their soldiers and prevent them from injury. Soldiers at various military facilities, such as Fort Bragg, are entering VR simulations to learn to quickly pop up hospital tents and treat injured soldiers in a tactical environment. These applications immerse officers in a realistic training scenario whereby they have to perform emergency response actions in a virtual world.

“We are trying to help the U.S. to be more safe in military missions,” Carolina Cruz-Neira, director of the Emerging Analytics Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said at the VR for Good panel at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. She explained that the biggest killer on military missions is lack of medical training. “The majority of soldiers die because of blood loss as other soldiers around them don’t have the right training [to save them].”

The program works by developing a Band of Brothers-type situation, whereby participants are immersed in narratives with their squad, participating in simulated missions. In addition to preparing soldiers to manage the stress of emergency scenarios on the field, at the end of each session the program raises a moral issue or has the trainee confront a unit member’s (virtual) death. First deployed in 2012, the program has only become more sophisticated with time.

“At the moment, an artificially intelligent virtual mentor will walk in and talk to them and help them interpret and normalize the stress response,” Rizzo said.

And while the emotionally evocative experience works for combat-training purposes, Rizzo explained the training also helps mitigate signs of PTSD upon their return home.

A widespread epidemic facing veterans, the technology aims to save lives pre- and post-war. One in five military service members who return from Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of PTSD or major depression. And while veterans make up close to nine percent of the population, 18 percent of suicides are former military. A widely cited 2016 VA report found that in 2014 over 7,400 veterans—20 per day—took their lives.

Beyond Video Games

The idea of using virtual reality to salve the effects of medical conditions and pain is not new. VR first emerged in the late 1980s, but didn’t take off due to primitive technology and prohibitive costs. With new wearable equipment that’s more affordable now on the market, VR is now ready for a clinical setting.

Today, hospitals use VR to distract patients from pain or manage stressful procedures, such as childbirth. Doctors also use the technology to help patients cope with emotional trauma. Yet, there is still some discrepancy between VR’s potential use and its research funds.

“The money going into VR is driven by gaming and entertainment and, along the way, it is making better equipment, software, and graphics available,” Rizzo summed up. “But the power of VR goes well beyond fun and entertainment. It’s in treating people [and teaching them how to] deal with PTSD or autism, or to help practice social skills.”

By evoking the sights, sounds, and conditions of the real world battle environment, VR exposure therapy and training could soon emerge as a popular way for soldiers to enhance their survival skills and for veterans to live a full life after war.