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Making Pain Relief A
Virtual Reality


Bad Guys, Good Bugs

As the boomer generation ages, Dr. Diane Gromala is using the latest computing and
virtual reality technologies to develop alternative pain interventions. 

Diane Gromala has been fascinated by the mind-body connection since she was a child. In early adulthood, her fascination grew into an obsession that has spurred her research into how new technologies–especially virtual reality (VR)–can be used to transform people’s experiences of pain, anxiety and stress.

In the mid-1980s, Gromala was working at Apple Inc. on the team that created the world’s first multimedia computer application, HyperCard, a precursor to the first web browser. A few years later, she was one of a handful of artists commissioned by the Banff Centre for the Arts to create artwork using VR technology. These events opened her mind to the vast potential of multimedia for facilitating inner experiences. She went on to earn a PhD in Computer Science and conduct research at some of the earliest VR labs in Seattle, Austin and Atlanta.

Gromala brought her expertise to SFU in 2005, where she founded the Canada Foundation for Innovation-funded Pain Studies Lab. There, she directs a team and works with B.C.’s pain experts and non-profit organizations to explore and invent new ways to use immersive VR and other technologies to mitigate pain without drugs. Her team’s recent research projects are intended to either distract users from their pain, or to help them self-manage it by teaching them to focus on and control their inner bio-states. These have included therapies such as action-packed 3D virtual reality games, social media apps for the socially isolated, and personal health visualizations and wearable devices designed to help motivate people to be more active — a difficulty when one is in pain.

Perhaps most notable of these is the Lab’s virtual walking meditation project. A modification of the VR meditation chamber that Gromala has been developing since her days at a Seattle lab (which is used in 20 clinical settings around the world), it involves having a person wear 3D goggles and biofeedback gear while they walk on a treadmill. The experience feels like walking through a forest, one that shape-shifts according to the walker’s physiological readings. In addition to teaching users how to better control their inner reactions, the tool encourages chronic pain sufferers  to again engage in more physical activity.

Gromala’s research has consistently shown that immersive VR is more effective in treating pain than are opiates (which are addictive), meditation (a difficult skill to master), or services such as acupuncture or physiotherapy (which can be hit-or-miss). Her team’s work has received numerous awards for innovation and was among the first to be recognized by Google’s Solve-for-X program.

VR technology has become dramatically less expensive in the past few years, good news for the millions of chronic pain sufferers in Canada who have long been understudied, under-diagnosed, and underserved as it could lead to more accessible, low-cost VR systems for homes use. According to Dr. Gromala, “Pain, anxiety and stress often seem like abstract words, but over time these psychophysiological states profoundly affect our health and longevity. Learning to manage them has very real measureable effects on our health and on how long we live.”


Diane Gromala is a Professor at the School of Interactive Arts + Technology and holds the Canada Research Chair in Computational Technologies for Transforming Pain. She directs both the university’s Pain Studies Lab and its Chronic Pain Research Institute. Outside of SFU, she developed the Transforming Pain Research Group to bring together knowledge experts in medicine, computer science, neuroscience, design, and animation to create innovative, interdisciplinary therapies for chronic pain.