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Through his relationship with Patterson, who was already working as a psychologist treating burn patients, Hoffman ported his virtual reality-focused treatment over to the field of pain relief in 1996 with the creation of “SnowWorld”.

As the virtual worlds improve in quality and the development costs decline, hospitals are showing an increased interest in the new technology.  Already, the price of the system has dropped from $90,000 in 1993 to $30,000 today; and the weight of the helmet has dropped from 8 pounds a decade ago down to 2 pounds today.

Even with the continued development process, there are still limitations.  Patients sometimes get motion-sickness from “flying” through the icy imaginary slopes of “SnowWorld” if they remain for more than 15 or 20 minutes, Patterson says.  Also, it’s difficult to find the programming talent needed to create such all-encompassing, realistic computer simulation.

“You need Disney money,” says Patterson, if you want to attract the programmers capable of creating realistic new alternatives.

While researchers have been approached by the venture capital world, Patterson says that for right now they’re happy to give the specialized virtual reality software to other collaborators, while they continue their own work which is supported by grants from the National Institutes of Heath and the Paul Allen Foundation.

One of those would-be collaborators is New York City’s Weill Cornell Medical Center, one of the largest burn treatment facilities in the country. Weill Cornell just started using the virtual reality technology for burn treatment a few weeks ago, but the hospital has been enlisting the system for almost three years to treat Sept. 11 survivors suffering post-traumatic stress.

Dr. JoAnn Difede, an associate professor for the department of psychiatry and the director of Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Studies Program at Weill Cornell Medical College, has used the system in her work with at least 15 World Trade Center survivors.  These particular patients were having trouble moving forward with their treatment because they could not fully engage their memories of Sept. 11.

Using the VR system, Difede has been able to take her patients into a world that mirrors lower Manhattan before the attacks, and then gradually expose them to a virtual simulation of the day’s events, complete with network news sound footage of the actual events. 

The treatment gives patients the ability to reconnect with their memories of that day, an important step for the healing process, says Difede.

“Once they can really experience it,” Difede says, “they can begin to heal.”

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