The Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that makes users feel like they're in another space by filling their field of vision with 3D video, doesn't have a price tag yet.
The consumer headset will probably set gamers back a few hundred dollars when it goes on sale early next year. But gamers won’t be the only customers. Scientists have also been exploring virtual reality with the Oculus Rift.
Felipe Medeiros, an eye doctor at UC San Diego, has been using the Oculus Rift to help his visually impaired patients.
One of them is Melinda Person. Last summer, she was walking to her neighborhood grocery store. She crossed the street and stepped onto a familiar curb. At least, she thought she did.
"I'm seriously telling you, I thought I was stepping on the curb," she says. "You know, it bothers me to think about it right now."
The curb was actually a step away. She tripped and lost her balance.
"I stepped and the next thing I knew, I was down on the street."
Person didn't sustain any major injuries, but falls like these can be devastating for people with glaucoma. Person has lost 86 percent of her peripheral vision to the disease. Now, she doesn’t go anywhere without a cane.
"I only have what I can see in front of me," she says, describing her tunnel vision. "When I'm looking at you, you're pretty much all I see."
Medeiros says right now, eye doctors don’t have very good ways of spotting balance problems in glaucoma patients.
“We need to have tests that are more realistic," he says. "I wanted to actually have an immersive environment that would better simulate the challenges that patients face.”
In a recent study, Medeiros used the Oculus Rift to immerse patients inside a virtual spinning tunnel. Participants felt like they were moving, and they tried to compensate by swaying. Mederios noticed that glaucoma patients swayed more than normal — and those who swayed the most had the greatest history of falls.
"It performed better than the conventional test that we use in clinical practice," Medeiros says.
Medeiros thinks the Oculus Rift could spot balance problems earlier so patients can get help on preventing falls. Melinda Person says when she first strapped on this headset, she didn’t even realize it was designed for video games.
"I'm not really a video gamer," Person says. She's played a few video games with her grandchildren, but she says, "they're not playing anything like this!"
Virtual reality is not new in medical research, but it used to be very expensive. Today’s headsets are priced with gamers in mind. And that means a lot more scientists are getting to play too.
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