How to Use Virtual Reality in Your Occupational Therapy Practice

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How to Use Virtual Reality in Your Occupational Therapy Practice

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My husband recently tried a virtual reality headset that simulated a roller coaster ride through mountains. He says it felt so real that when he finished the simulation he realized he was gripping a table and his palms were sweating.

Virtual reality (VR) is here—are you using it in your practice?

It may sound futuristic, but check out how your OT colleagues are using VR with clients.

OT Practitioners Using VR With Clients

AOTA member Rachel Proffitt was profiled in this news article about her research that is exploring the benefits of using virtual reality games with occupational therapy clients.

man using V.R.Proffitt uses a Kinect camera and a virtual reality headset with clients who have had a stoke. In the article, Proffitt says, “it takes their mind off ‘Oh, I just did 10 repetitions of this movement’…They get immediate feedback from the game. They get sparkles and dings when they’re successful.”

OT Practice profiled Proffitt in this article where she says her goal of using games and interactive technology is to help the client forget that they are actually doing therapy (AOTA member login).

The Huffington Post discusses a virtual reality system that OT researchers in Israel developed to help children with autism learn how to cross a road safely. The article describes how virtual reality can eliminate safety concerns by allowing clients to navigate a simulation of busy streets, traffic, or other potentially dangerous situations.

AOTA member Lauren Sheehan recently wrote a blog post on OT Potential about some of the new virtual reality tools that OT practitioners can use as well as some of the research behind VR and OT.

Sheehan now works for a VR company and she describes how she got that position in this podcast on Seniors Flourish.

How Could I Ever Afford VR?

Maybe you’re excited about the possibilities of using VR with your clients but you worry about the cost.

This Quarterly article from the Technology Special Interest Section (pdf) describes low cost VR tools, which includes free commonly used software (AOTA member login). To sum it up, the authors say, “a fully functioning, complete VR system can be built using only a moderately powered Windows computer, a Kinect sensor, and freely available software. 

What About the Evidence for VR?

What does the evidence say about virtual reality? Let’s take a look at critically appraised topics from AOTA’s Evidence-Based Practice team about VR:

There is strong evidence to support the use of virtual reality techniques during dressing changes and other pain-producing therapeutic interventions for individuals rehabilitating from severe burns. Read more (AOTA member login).

There is moderate evidence to support the use of computer-based interventions such as virtual reality, video modeling, and collaborative computer work as well as activity-based interventions to address social skills for clients with autism. Read more (AOTA member login).

Have you tried using virtual reality with your clients? What’s been your experience? Tell us in the comments.

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  • I have used VR in my public school-based practice with success. For a number of my elementary school-aged students with challenges in the areas of visual attention, visual tracking, and eye-hand coordination, in particular, the use of VR has been helpful.  As would be expected, many of my students with challenges in these areas, don't want to sit and do "traditional" pencil and paper activities.  They avoid doing activities that they perceive will be hard for them.  But, when offered the chance to "play" a video game (VR), they can't wait for our next session. I like to use VR when working with small groups of students.  Sometimes, I introduce it to an entire class, and I push-in to their classroom to use the software on the SmartBoard. I started using VR after receiving a link for a free trial at one of the AOTA Annual Conferences. I use the system developed by the Israeli OT researchers that is referenced above.

    Mindy