Providing Real Care in a Virtual Environment: The Challenges and Potential of Clinical Practice in a Virtual World
Tens of millions of Internet users spend a significant amount of time in three-dimensional virtual worlds, and many people predict that the popularity of 3-D virtual worlds will increase as technology improves. One virtual world, which currently has 15 million registered users, is a world called “Second Life” run by the company Linden Lab. Unlike many virtual worlds, this world has no computer-controlled characters, and users have no predefined goal. Every “person” in Second Life is an avatar controlled by a real person. Second Life has an open scripting language, and users create much of the world’s content. Some doctors are beginning to explore the possibility of delivering healthcare through virtual worlds such as Second Life.
In Second Life, a number of users pursue health-related activities, but most of these activities are educational in nature. A few groups, for example, have created islands in the virtual world devoted to the dissemination of health information. Another group created an operating room in which medical students can view simulated operations. A company created a replica of a real hospital that it plans to build so as to receive feedback about the hospital layout. A group of stroke survivors, some of whom are paralyzed, set up a support group called “Dreams Island” in Second Life, and some of these people have found this support group to be emotionally therapeutic.
Researchers working with Dan Hoch, MD, are attempting to determine whether it is possible to intervene in people’s healthcare through virtual worlds. Hoch and his colleagues hope to determine whether meditation techniques taught in a virtual world can yield measurable results in the real world. They recruited users of Second Life from the Boston area, and they developed a space in Second Life in which the users’ avatars could take meditation classes. In the classes, the avatars performed activities such as walking through a labyrinth and adopting yoga positions. The users found the virtual yoga to be of limited use, but they said that activities such as walking their avatar through the labyrinth were very relaxing. This small pilot study raises interesting questions about the therapeutic potential of virtual worlds.
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