With the rising popularity of fitness wearables and health-tracking devices, biometric sensor technology continues to improve and expand into new form factors and use cases. One such area that you should expect to see in the very near future is biometrics in virtual reality (VR).

VR gaming platforms have already begun to introduce basic data like heart rate in games and enterprise applications, signaling greater attention to biometric sensors in the VR development community. The synergy between biometrics and VR is accelerating as VR systems become more affordable and are adopted for diverse uses in healthcare, education, and business.

The Benefits of VR for Pain Management

 A major growth area for biometrics in healthcare is in the application of VR for the treatment of acute and chronic pain. Firsthand Technology (firsthand.com) is leading the clinical application of VR pain relief with therapeutic products like COOL! and GLOW! Biometrics are integrated at the core of Firsthand’s virtual experiences for biofeedback, assessment, and personalization.

Biometrics in Virtual Reality

Backed by extensive scientific and clinical evidence, Firsthand is helping patients cope with the pain and stress of hospital procedures, and better manage chronic pain without drugs. Independent clinical studies of Firsthand’s software have shown that VR can reduce pain and stress of cancer treatment, neuropathic conditions, and noxious procedures for burns or wound care.

Firsthand’s VR experiences help patients develop their resilience and mindfulness through biofeedback in a relaxing, enjoyable virtual world.  Firsthand’s CEO, Howard Rose, explains “The power of VR for healthcare goes way beyond merely distracting patients temporarily from their pain.  VR embodies a new approach to personalized medicine, and biometrics play a crucial role to connect the person with the virtual world in a closed, responsive loop.”

The growing attention around VR pain relief is being energized by a multiple studies that show VR can outperform opioids without harmful side effects or risk of addiction. One chronic pain patient, Matt, who suffers from small fiber neuropathy compares his experience with opioids and VR this way: “With VR, I get what I call a natural high. I’d never get high off the opiates. The drugs would reduce the pain for a while, then my body would get used to it and it was very frustrating. This (VR), every time I get on it I feel great afterwards.”

Biometric technology compliments VR technology by monitoring and feeding back the user’s heart rate, respiration rate, pulse oximetry, and blood pressure. Dynamic monitoring of the user’s biometric state can help improve the and target treatments to new disease areas. Companies like Firsthand predict that fast paced growth of VR technology further drive down costs and speed catalyzing wider adoption of VR in clinics and at home.

VR and Mental Health

One of the most promising developments of VR in the healthcare industry is in mental health. Whether it’s depression, stress from relationships or work, anxiety disorders, or phobias, most people experience some form psychological distress that can affect mental well-being.

For many years the solution has centered around pharmacological intervention as the primary course of treatment. And while pharmaceuticals may still be needed in for some individuals, VR is a developing alternative with far less negative side effects. Though virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) has been around for a few years, cost and limitations in technology has kept this form of treatment from becoming more mainstream. Now that biometric and VR technology is improving and more affordable, treatments like VRET and telemedicine options that open up access to care are much more realistic for conditions like PTSD, OCD, panic disorders, and other common anxiety disorders.

One interesting development for PTSD is an application called Bravemind, which uses prolonged exposure therapy (PET) to treat war veterans. By using VR technology, the app can deliver sensations associated with the explosive environments of battle for an effective form of treatment safely and with limited side effects. Though more clinical studies are currently being conducted to determine the effectiveness of VR treatments like this, one study has shown it to improve mental health in PTSD patients over pharmaceutical alternatives.

Biometrics in virtual reality 

While there are many other app and therapist-based alternatives currently heading towards the market, this is only the tip of the iceberg and you should expect to see many other alternative forms of VR mental health treatments in the very near future.

Biometrics in Virtual Reality Gaming

Like healthcare, the gaming industry is a huge market usually at the forefront of technological innovation. While there have been attempts to include biometrics into gaming dating back to 2014, the data was largely inaccurate and inconsistent, skewing the results of the user.

Part of this could be due to the fact that gaming companies are pioneers of software and not necessarily biometric technology. Improvements, however slowly, are being made, and companies like NeuroSky have developed electrode-based EEG and ECG applications capable of reading advanced biometrics like heart rate, stress, fatigue, mood, and emotional distress. Creating games where this biometric feedback plays a role in the outcome opens up the potential for an all-new gaming experience.

But for this to happen, accuracy will have to play an important role. Since most gamers already rely on headsets for online gaming, building existing biometric technology directly into the headset makes sense and can be seamless. The ear is also an ideal spot to measure biometrics due to favorable human physiology at the ear, which is one reason why accuracy is more difficult in other areas of the body.

Once the kinks are worked out and costs of purchasing biometric and VR technology continue to plummet, don’t be surprised to see more games like NeverMind, a suspense-thriller which claims to be able to respond to emotion-based biometric feedback from the user to help conquer your own personal fears.

While gamers should definitely be excited about where this will eventually lead, as this partnership between VR and biometric technology continues to build and develop, it will also influence how we use these technologies in other industries like healthcare and fitness down the road.