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Jul 05, 2021

6 min read

Virtual reality applications in the COVID-19 pandemic

Virtual reality applications in the COVID-19 pandemic

Virtual reality is so versatile that it is not surprising that it can find use in any industry. VR lets us turn into real objects that can only be imagined or are difficult to reach. It can even make the invisible visible. For example, it has played its part in healthcare and fighting COVID-19.

The outbreak

The COVID-19 pandemic started in late 2019. Slowly but surely, the whole world started shutting down. Schools, workplaces, cultural organizations, stores, and all the other institutions locked their doors waiting for better times. But there was and still is a solution right in front of us: virtual reality (VR). As VR enables digital information to be visualized in any physical environment, many companies based their online learning on VR, using this approach to tackle the lack of, basically, everything. This technology allows people to transform their limited surroundings into places for learning, work, and entertainment, thus helping humanity to overcome the pandemic that was our new reality.

An app to battle the COVID-19 outbreak?

Can VR really help in preventing the spread of the plague of the 21st century? Well, recently, a fantastic VR application has been developed by American company Nanome. The app is helping scientists and clinicians from all over the world in their battle against COVID-19 by connecting them together in a virtual environment, thus allowing them to collaborate remotely in real time. Whether you are a structural biologist, crystallographer, computational chemist, medicinal chemist, or protein engineer, the immersive 3D of this app gives you a better understanding of the structural features and variations of a drug, protein, or other molecules.

Video by Nanome.

Isolating and then sequencing crucial parts of the virus is one of the main ways to end the pandemic. The spike protein on coronavirus allows it to spread, and visualizing this protein in 3D is so much easier with VR. The app is an extremely powerful tool that makes it possible to use your hands to manipulate a molecule. You can turn it in all directions and zoom in or out.

As COVID-19 gathered in strength and spread worldwide, the importance of remote collaboration became clearer than ever.

VR in psychology

VR is not only helping humanity in fighting the nasty virus, but it is also making us feel less anxious and lonely. Studies have shown that as the coronavirus rapidly spread across the world, there were significantly more problems with people’s mental health. In particular, the rates of stress and anxiety have skyrocketed. People are social beings and being isolated or in a complete lockdown can have a significant impact, so VR applications that allow us to talk to other people, even virtual people, can really help in alleviating stress and anxiety.

VR is also used for meditation, adding an extra dimension. Various companies have developed meditation apps for VR, which make the meditation experience more precise and personalized, to the tiniest detail. Most of the applications relax the body and mind. They remove the sensation of being closed in within a single room due to their complex, almost realistic virtual environments. For instance, wearing a headset can help you to feel translocated, so it is much easier to shut out all the distractions from the real world. The overall result is a whole new level of relaxation, happiness, and gratification. Some applications are for a single person, but in others, you can explore the world freely or even meet up and hang out with other people, as if there were no distance between you.

A woman with a VR headset enjoying virtual reality

VR Vaccine: Out of sight, out of mind

Vaccinations save lives, but millions of children fear the needle more than the actual pain. In Brazil, an interesting project wanted to find an effective way to make young children more comfortable with being vaccinated. The VR Vaccination project was launched by pharmacy chain Hermes Pardini. The children wear a VR headset and a narrative is presented to them in the form of a 3D animated story with heroes defending their land against villains. By taking the vaccine, the child unlocks a virtual shield that protects the village and defeats all the villains. A nurse watches the story unfold on a separate screen, and cleanses the skin and applies the injection at appropriate points in the narrative. The results of this project have been so positive that it was used in 80 pharmacies within the first year of being developed. “What we learned from this project is that children fear the needle more than the pain itself,” Luiz Evandro, a director of VZLAB and Lobo, told BBC News. He claims that if one could make the approaching needle disappear, the fear would also disappear. VR Vaccine proved this theory to be 100% correct.

Though VR is a fairly new technology, it is clear that it’s here to stay and will continue to improve our lives during unpredictable times, today and in the future. These case studies over the last five years demonstrate that it can reduce anxiety, diffuse the fear of needles, and help us to understand how viruses work at a molecular level. Without a doubt, it will have a key role in battling any future pandemics. Finding cures and exploring human anatomy to the tiniest detail is a reality now, but what will the future bring? Artificial conscience or life in digital form? We can all speculate about the wonders that VR will provide in the future.

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