SnowWorld is a virtual reality environment with a difference - it has been created especially for use by burn victims. The unique simulation is designed to be used as a distraction for patients whilst they undergo treatment that is often agonising.

Dr Hunter Hoffman, a research scientist at the University of Washington, created the virtual world in collaboration with David Patterson, a psychologist from the Harborview Medical Center. Knowing the trauma burns patients go through yet recognizing the danger of excessive painkiller doses, Hoffman started experimenting with VR as a means of relief in 1996. His first project, SpiderWorld, was used on arachnophobes to lessen their fear and get them used to being around spiders. It was relatively successful, but Hoffman kept experimenting and turned his efforts towards pain relief.

SnowWorld is the result. It has become popular among patients and impressed various scientific journals with its pioneering concept. Patients fly through a virtual world of snowmen, igloos and polar bears; immersed in the game, shooting snowballs and enjoying the ride, they find they don't feel the pain as much. In fact, tests showed that up to 75% of users found a reduction in pain, averaging 40-50%. Hoffman believes SnowWorld's icy setting also factors in its effectiveness, psychologically battling the burning pain patients experience.

While SnowWorld is not the first use of virtual reality in a medical situation, it is within burn therapy, and it's certainly the most interesting and the most talked about project of its kind yet. For the future, Hoffman's team is looking into chronic pain, which "involves much more complex issues" according to Patterson.


Sources / find out more:

http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,42084,00.html
http://www.sciencentral.com/articles/view.php3?language=english&type=24119&article_id=218392308&cat=3_3 has a video of SnowWorld in action, and the reaction of a six year old user. It's member-only but registration only takes a moment and the video's worth a look.

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