Exploring VR for the health sector

May 15, 2017

SIAT graduate student, Xin Tong, explores the use of virtual reality in the health sector. 

VR for patients with chronic illness

What are your research interests?

My research interests include games, virtual reality (VR) and health technology that benefit people physically and psychologically. I enjoy creating things that can be used in the real word to help people, especially those who are in pain.

In SIAT's Pain Studies Lab, I have the chance to work and collaborate with healthcare professionals and practitioners, caregivers, and patients. Seeing my research make a real difference in patients' lives is motivating; I am happy to contribute my efforts to this field.

What are you currently working on in grad school?

I am working on a VR game to help people better understand the lives and experiences of patients who are living with chronic pain.

Chronic pain is invisible and difficult to communicate. Pain that persists over long periods of time has been identified as a complex medical condition; it, too, is hard to discern or to articulate. These reasons make it difficult for family, friends and healthcare practitioners to understand or even believe the existence of those suffering with pain. Therefore,

The goal of this game is to foster empathy and understanding towards patients with chronic pain.

Can you tell us more about your VR project for teens undergoing chemotherapy?

The Project: Immersive VR may be an effective approach to distracting teens from the pain caused by chemotherapy, which is a hypothesis we’d like to test in future studies.

Farmooo is a VR farming simulation game that places teen cancer patients (age 14 to 18) into a farming environment. By using the concept of a farm, we seek to symbolize hope and growth for patients, and to encourage them to look outside of themselves by maintaining a virtual farm and getting rewarded for achievements. We hope that this metaphor for life can spark hope and meaning for teens living with cancer.

The Impact: We are still in the process of carrying out research studies with kids who are undergoing chemotherapy. However, our preliminary focus group study revealed that outpatients who experienced chemotherapy held positive attitudes towards using VR during their treatment; they expressed deep appreciation for a VR game that was built specifically for them. Some concerns related to interaction and other aspects arose, which we will address in future research.

The Teamwork: Although this was not my first time mentoring undergrads in Pain Studies Lab, I am learning new things from them. The undergrads were very passionate about what they have been doing, and I am impressed by their creative ideas, design, efficiency, and ability to execute throughout the project development process. We were more like team members with different roles rather than in a simple instructor-and-student relationship.

About Graduate School

What motivated you to pursue graduate school in general?

During my final year as an undergraduate student in an Electronic Engineering school, I had the chance to work in a human-computer interaction (HCI) lab for half a year.

I then realized that although numerous novel technologies have been developed, humanity remains the most significant factor in advanced technology.

Therefore, I made my choice to switch fields from engineering to HCI.

Since health remains a permanent issue for all human beings, technology has the potential to be a treatment tool for patients. Therefore, I applied to be a graduate student in SIAT's Pain Studies Lab in order to design more accessible interfaces and interaction methods for technologies, from the perspective of patients.

What differentiates SIAT from other schools?

The biggest difference between SIAT and other traditional departments is that most of our projects seek to solve real world problems! Most SIAT projects focus on the scientific aspects of human experience and implement new technologies for interactive applications, which shape the way we live our lives.

What is the most challenging part about grad school?

The most challenging part about grad school is to seek your “true love” and stay motivated to pursue your love with that passion. Especially for PhD students, it takes time to find a proper and contributive research question that you are fascinated with, and it takes more time to dig deep into the entire fields to be one of the experts.

Pursuing a PhD in a research-oriented grad school like ours is an important life choice and it has ups and downs as you move forward. Therefore, locating a research topic that you love, making plans and putting in solid effort, thinking as a scholar and staying productive, are the challenging parts for everyone, including me.

Any words of advice for students who are thinking about entering grad school at SIAT?

If you dream of changing the world, taking on challenges, and working with creative individuals from interdisciplinary fields, I highly recommend that you join us!

Entering SIAT as a grad student will be a meaningful and significant journey in your life.

What are some things that most people don't know about you?

  • I am a game developer and game enthusiast – but I am really terrible at playing games.
  • I hate horror movies, because I get too scared to sleep at night.
  • After graduating from SIAT, I might consider having my own startup business.

If you are interested in chatting more with Xin about her experience, feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn.