Can a virtual reality game make you forget you’re in pain?

My new piece at The Conversation

A couple of weeks from now I will be in hospital undergoing a knee replacement. It will be the most extreme surgery I’ve ever experienced and I’m pretty scared. I’ve been told that I can expect to endure excruciating pain afterwards but I won’t be allowed to lie in bed feeling sorry for myself. In order to ensure a good recovery I have to get up and exercise the new joint numerous times a day. Make no mistake, this is going to hurt.

It may not be too long, however, until patients like me will be able to ward off their agonies simply by playing virtual reality games. This surprising advance is already being tested, but the premise behind it is not new.

As neuroscientist David Linden recently explained on NPR, the brain has more control over pain than we might at first imagine. It can say “hey that’s interesting, turn up the volume on this pain information that’s coming in”, or it can say “turn down the volume on that and pay less attention to it”. In Linden’s book Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, he discusses how our perception of pain relies on the brain and how it processes information coming from the nervous system.

Lieutenant Sam Brown

Researchers are now attempting to see if this process can be manipulated through gaming. In the US, a group of patients suffering from severe burns were invited to play SnowWorld, a virtual reality computer game devised by two cognitive psychologists, Hunter Hoffman and Dave Patterson, to persuade the brain to ignore pain signals in favour of more compelling scenarios. Their motivation, Hoffman said was because opioids (morphine and morphine-related chemicals) can control burn pain when the patient is at rest, they are nowhere near adequate to quench the agony of daily bandage changes, wound cleaning and staple removals.

The best-known SnowWorld player is lieutenant Sam Brown who, during his first tour of duty in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2008, suffered third degree burns over 30% of his body. An IED buried in a road hit the vehicle he was travelling in and exploded into a fireball, engulfing Brown in flames. His injuries were so severe he had to be kept in a medically induced coma for several weeks. Back in the US, Brown endured more than two dozen painful surgeries, but none were as bad as the daily ritual of caring for his wounds. When nurses attended to his burns and helped him perform the necessary physical therapies, he experienced the most excruciating pain.

In 2012, NBC News reported on Brown’s experience and how the pain of dressing burn wounds could be so intense it could make patients relive the original trauma. In Brown’s case the procedures were so unbearable that on some occasions his superior officers had to order him to undergo treatment.

For Brown, help arrived not in the form of new kinds of medicines or dressings, but by a video game. Brown was one of the first participants in SnowWorld’s pilot study, which was designed in conjunction with the US military, to test whether it really could help wounded soldiers.

Soldiers – frontline to virtual reality.


A distracting annoyance

At the time, Hoffman’s main work at the University of Washington was using virtual reality techniques to help people overcome a pathological fear of spiders. Patterson, based at the Harborview Burn Centre in Seattle, is an expert in psychological techniques such as hypnosis that can be used to help burn patients.

It was already known that the way we experience pain can be psychologically manipulated – for example, anticipating pain can make it worse. Research looking at how soldiers experience pain has also revealed how emotions can affect how that pain feels. So if your brain
can interpret pain signals differently depending on what you’re thinking or feeling at the time, why not see if the experience of pain can be altered by deliberately diverting a patient’s attention towards something else? If it worked, the wound care could become more of a distracting annoyance and the distressing sensation of pain could be much reduced.

It was a long shot, but Hoffman’s expertise in virtual reality therapy made it possible to develop a game which offered that kind of diversion. To do this patients first put on a virtual reality headset and earphones and are then transported through an icy canyon filled with snowball hurling snowmen, flocks of squawking penguins, woolly mammoths and other surprises. Flying through the gently falling snow, they can then retaliate by throwing their own snowballs. Often, they get so involved with it that they don’t even notice when their procedure has finished.

In the interview with NBC Patterson explained how, during painful procedures like scrubbing off a wound, the patient is taken into a soothing and icy world, a completely different place from the reality. It works, he said, “for as long as people seem to be in the virtual world.”

The 2011 pilot study showed promising results. In some cases, soldiers with the worst pain reported that SnowWorld worked better than morphine. Brown himself is now much recovered, and attributes a large part of that success on his immersive experience.

Similar projects are happening elsewhere. In the UK, staff at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham and the University of Birmingham have been looking at how computer game technology can alleviate patients’ pain and discomfort through distraction therapy in which patients “wander around” a virtual world based on real locations in the Devon countryside. The idea is to combine authentic natural landscapes with virtual reality aids that help patients divert their attention from pain while also offering opportunities for real physical exercise – walking up hill, going over bridges, sitting on the beach – that creates movement inside the game.

As with SnowWorld, patients are generally injured military personnel. Most suffer from severe burns, but some also have phantom pain from amputated limbs.

Future applications

In the future, could virtual reality headsets like Oculus Rift provide convincing environments for pain relief and other medical applications? For example, for helping amputees learn to use new prosthetic limbs and treating PTSD. Research is also underway to discover whether virtual reality can be used to reduce chronic neck pain.

Social psychologist Brock Bastian is interested in the way pain affects us, and sees the phenomenon itself as a kind of virtual experience:

[Pain] is a kind of shortcut to mindfulness: it makes us suddenly aware of everything in the environment. It brutally draws us into a virtual sensory awareness of the world, much like meditation.

Pain is in the zeitgeist. In her new film, Cake, Jennifer Aniston portrays a woman tormented by fibromyalgia, a condition that causes chronic pain, following a devastating car accident. For her, however, it seems that relief might finally come not from escaping reality, but from embracing it.

Luckily for me, the pain of knee replacement is said to be severe but short-lived. Nevertheless, I plan to dust off my PS3 and experiment with one or two distracting computer games. We’ll see how that goes.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Webinar, 6th May 2015: Technobiophilia – soothing our connected minds and easing our wired lives

BC_webinarsI’m honoured to be invited to speak in the Fostering Connections with Nature webinar series organised by The Biophilic Cities Project. The project conducts research and policy work on biophilic cities, both domestically and internationally, by Professor Tim Beatley and his team at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. Its principal aim is to advance the theory and practice of planning for biophilic cities, through a combination of collaborative research, dialogue and exchange, teaching.

Technobiophilia: soothing our connected minds and easing our wired lives
May 6th 2015, 17.30 GMT / 12:30pm EST
Register here
In her 2013 book Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace, Sue Thomas interrogates the prevalence online of nature-derived metaphors, and comes to a surprising conclusion. The root of this trend, she believes, lies in biophilia, defined by E.O. Wilson as ‘the innate attraction to life and lifelike processes’. Working from the strong thread of biophilia which runs through our online lives, she expands Wilson’s definition to the ‘innate attraction to life and lifelike processes *as they appear in technology*’, a phenomenon she calls ‘technobiophilia’. Attention to technobiophilia and its application to urban design offers a way to make our digital lives integrated, healthy, and mindful. In this talk she outlines the key elements of the concept and shows how, even in an intensely digital culture, the restorative qualities of biophilia can alleviate mental fatigue and enhance our capacity for directed attention, thus soothing our connected minds and easing our wired lives.


Event: Biophilia Film Channel & Drawing Inspiration, Dorset County Hospital

Art, landscape and health event – Biophilia Film Channel & Drawing Inspiration
27th January 2015, 15-30 to 17-30
Lecture Theatre, Education Centre, Dorset County Hospital, Williams Ave, Dorchester, DT1 2JY, UK
Entry is free but please RSVP via Eventbrite

Autumn Mists at CorfeI’ve been invited to give a short talk about wired well-being at this  event dedicated to two projects by Arts in Hospital and Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Both showcase in different ways the relationship between landscape, art and wellbeing at Dorset County Hospital. See some of the films on show, hear from the curator Dr Richard Povall, editor of Digital Creativity Journal and listen to a short talk from me, then take a look at the Drawing Inspirations exhibition, followed by tea and cake in Damers Restaurant,

Films on show in the new channel include works by Sue Palmer, Ivon Oates, Robert Golden, Dave Young (Pod Films), Sam Stewart, Stephen Banks, Matt Stockman, Ben Symonds, Geoff Dunlop, Phil Bambridge / Nathan Filer, Ted Evans, Matt Stockman, Michael Jenner and Alex Murdin.

I’ve written about this innovative project before (see How to bring nature into your digital world: 1.) but the Biophilia Channel takes the idea one step further by inviting artists to create works specially designed for streaming to patients in certain wards. I look forward to seeing them.

Dawn's Early Kiss at Old HarryI also look  forward to the Drawing Inspiration exhibition, which takes a closer look at landscape-inspired art to encourage people to look at the landscape from a new perspective and tell us about the cultural, physical and social changes that have shaped how we live today.

If you live close by, please do come along. It promises to be a very enjoyable gathering. It’s free, but sign up via Eventbrite

Talking to houseplants might make them happy, but one app calls for a deeper connection

How good are you at caring for your houseplants? Come to that, how good are you at caring for yourself? Symbio, a new app still currently in development, will connect your well-being to that of your plants and ensure that all of you thrive.

The story of Symbio began in 2014 when I was invited to speak at Sesi Cultura Digital in Rio de Janeiro. Sadly, though, I couldn’t get to Brazil at that time, so instead the organisers invited me to add technobiophilia to their hackathon themes, something which connected nature with technology to create devices which helped support wired well-being. I wrote two design challenges for them to consider.

The winner, Gaivota (Seagull), is a collaborative network of weather data built with Arduino, an open-source electronics platform, which enables users to monitor their own customised weather station. It’s a great idea but my personal favourite, since it deeply connects us to the plants in our lives, is the second placed Symbio, which was specifically designed to address my technobiophilic brief.

A Symbio prototype.


Symbio is comprised of a wearable device, a mobile app, a glass jar with a plant, an irrigator, a light bulb and sensors. The kit acts as a technological medium designed to activate the intrinsic relationship between people and nature. The wearable device uses pulse and light sensors to monitor the daily activities of the user so that water and food can be released to the plant via the app, but only if the user fulfils some positive daily activities such as taking in a healthy amount of sunshine (good for vitamin D) or taking in some air in an open space.

As the designers explain it:

If the user takes the total healthy dose of sunlight for her body, the plant will also receive the light it needs for its growth. If the user visits two open space leisure places per week, the plant will also receive during the course of the week the nutrients it needs.

This relationship of the plant with the user creates an emotional link, making her change her daily habits so her Symbio can survive. If the user keeps herself healthy, she will automatically keep the plant healthy.

So if you lead a healthy life, your plant thrives. If you don’t, it dies. Now there is an incentive to take the stairs instead of the elevator.

The designers of Symbio are research interns at the Nucleus of Art and New Organisms, a trans-disciplinary hothouse of artistic and engineering talent in Rio de Janeiro where they research and develop technological, organic, and sensorial hybrid systems. Each of the designers bring different skills to their hybrid projects: Filipi Dias de Oliveira is a student of design; Iane Cabral Mello studies drama and clothing; Aroldo Mascarenhas Neto is a telecommunications engineer, and Leonardo Nunes Guimarães Costa works in electronic engineering.

Second place in the SESI Digital Culture hackathon: (L-R) Filipi Dias, Iane Cabral, Leonaro Nunes and Aroldo Mascarenhas. SESI conference, Author provided

Dias said that before the hackathon the team had already designed projects using plants, bees, sound and the body, so when they read about the concept of technobiophilia they realised its relevance to their work. “We brainstormed on the first day of the hackathon and decided to create a technological bridge between people and nature.” This, of course, led to various designs and the final product.

Planting the idea

The app isn’t the first to monitor the health of plants. The Parrot Pot caused quite a stir at this year’s CES 2015, the first big tech show of the year. It is being promoted as the most advanced connected plant pot available to date. It uses a database of 8,000 plants and sensors to provide up to a month of smart, autonomous irrigation, keeping your plants happy and healthy until you return.

The Koubachi does something pretty similar, as does plant link, a Kickstarter project which overshot its budget target by US$20,000 and is now in production.

Connected plants are going to be a popular item in the next couple of years, but I’ve seen nothing else as ambitious as Symbio, which doesn’t just connect your geraniums to the water supply, it also connects them to you.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

20 years since the founding of trAce. Do you remember the Noon Quilt?

In May 1995 I was teaching creative writing in the English Department at Nottingham Trent University when, quite unexpectedly, I fell into the internet. That moment redirected the course of my life, and the most instrumental part of that change was the birth of the trAce Online Writing Community.

trAce was born at the cusp of a new world. The Internet was 26 years old by then but the World Wide Web was still very new.

I set up the CyberWriting project, later to become trAce, in May 1995 at Nottingham Trent University, England. The idea was to explore writing on the internet. trAce’s first-ever publication was in paper, a word-processed photocopied booklet, and it was produced by Simon Mills, at that time a student on the MA in Writing. To collect the information, Simon spent his summer vacation online trawling the net for links. He surfed through hundreds of sites, sorted the best of them into categories, and wrote a short review of each. That October in 1995 he collated his results and photocopied them in booklet format for internal distribution to writing students and faculty. It formed the basis of the first trAce website, launched May 1996, and here it is. I wonder how many of the sites are still live?

What had begun as a personal quest had grown into a very promising research project, and by May 1996 Simon had taught himself HTML and uploaded the booklet into trAce’s first website.

Now, 2015 marks the anniversary of the first year of what would turn into a decade of collective innovation for trAce members around the world. To commemorate their fantastic creativity, I’ve set up a Facebook group where writers, artists, coders, and other members of trAce can share memories of that hectic time. I hope you’ll join us there. I’m going to post something from trAce every month, starting this month with The Noon Quilt, a gorgeous project which still shimmers with beauty wherever you click.

footThe Noon Quilt is an assemblage of patches submitted by writers from around the world. Together they form a fabric of noon-time impressions. The two quilts were made over a period of approximately five months during 1998-1999. They were designed,’stitched’ and maintained by Teri Hoskin from an idea by me. Ali Graham wrote the perl scripts needed to frequently update the quilt.

ohIn 1999 we built the Eclipse Quilt  We created the three trAce quilts in close succession, then later the British Council commissioned two more, both of which were sadly lost when the Council moved its website to a different server. The Dawn Quilt was made for participants in South Asia, and the Road Quilt was made for Russia.

Did you contribute to the Noon Quilt? Can you find your entry? Why not post it on the Facebook Page? Share your memories of trAce there too. We’d love to reconnect.


Changing a landscape with the power of your mind is hugely relaxing

Looking over the landscape I could see an old tree standing frozen and seemingly dead, its branches coated with icy rime. Around it, mossy grass and small rocks lay beneath a coating of snow and in the distance glistening waterfalls tumbled down the sides of whitened mountains. It looked like the wilds of Ireland in wintertime, but the view existed only in my phone. My task, using a handheld biosensor called PIP, was to bring summer to this deeply cold outdoor scene by the powers of mental relaxation.

The device – the brainchild of developer Daragh McDonnell, who started work on it in 2004 at Media Lab Europe (the ill-fated European partner of the MIT Media Lab) – connects to your phone or tablet via bluetooth and works by sensing electrical changes at the surface of the skin which indicate stress levels. This data is then passed by Bluetooth into The Loom, a mobile app that uses biofeedback to help you measure, understand and manage your stress levels.

The more you relax, the faster the landscape moves from winter to summer on your phone or tablet. In my case, this process took between five and nine minutes, but a friend managed the transformation in as little as two.

Winter looms. (PIP)

To change the scene before me, I concentrated on visualising warm air around the trunk of the tree. Slowly it started to thaw. Fresh moss appeared at its base, then stones, grass, and tiny mountain flowers. A nearby stream melted into life and flowed again. And as the mountains softened and the sky relaxed from grey to blue, the tree finally burst into bloom, displaying bright leaves and creamy petals. I had revived a frozen world using only the power of thought and in the process my heart rate slowed and I felt more calm.

The Loom in Summer (PIP)

Environmental psychologists know that images of nature can relax us and reduce stress. As long ago as 1971, a research project involving patients recovering from gall bladder surgery showed that those placed in a ward with a window view of some fairly ordinary trees required less pain relief and recovered faster than similar patients in a ward where the windows looked out onto brick walls. This experiment has since been repeated in offices, schools, and prisons, with similar results.

The app takes a departure from the usual terrain of digital well-being – Californian beaches and mountain ranges – favoured by an industry where style is lead by US West Coast culture. Instead the “loomscape” I experienced was made up of photographs taken in different parts of Ireland. So if you’ve visited Massey’s Wood, Glen of the Downs, Devil’s Glen and Tomie’s Wood in County Wicklow, or Connemara in the west of Ireland, you might recognise some of the slivers of their verdant panoramas which have been woven together to create this fictional game-like landscape.

PIP has also worked on other apps linked to the power of relaxation such as Relax and Race where your stress level is used to determine your speed in the race – the more you relax, the faster you go. And new loomscapes are in the works for 2015.

Both PIP and Relax and Race use games technology to promote new kinds of well-being and stress reduction. There are many apps, of course, that promote relaxation as an end in itself or as insomnia and meditation aids and training. And there is an increasing amount of evidence that some video games have a relaxing effect, but this biosensor may be the first instance of the player entering into an active feedback loop and causing changes to the game itself. It would be interesting to see how far this goes in the future.

This article was first published in my column at The Conversation. Read the original.

Social network Tsū opts for green – they’re in the right spectrum for connectedness

The new social network, Tsū, is banded with a clear and vivid green. Its hue is reminiscent of aspects of nature: the sea in winter, the stripes on certain kinds of leaves, the colour of chrysanthemums and orchids.

In contrast to the dull office blue of Facebook, the icy whiteness of Google+, and the foggy grey of Ello, Tsū offers users a warm and vibrant colour scheme which is soft on the eyes and somehow friendlier.

Can a simple design choice make so much difference to the attractiveness of a social network site? It seems that the biggest sites go for blue: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and Foursquare all favour it. And that choice is reflected in a general worldwide preference in all kinds of situations. Blue connotes intelligence, communication, trust, efficiency, duty, and logic, giving an overall sense of competence and security. It makes for a pretty safe choice.

Red however, is seen as arousing, exciting, and stimulating. It’s generally associated with activity, strength, and being up-to-date. Google+, YouTube, and Pinterest all feature red teamed with white (sincerity, purity, cleanness, simplicity, hygiene, clarity, peace, and happiness).

The only established social network coloured green is Vine where users share videos for six seconds or less in a short-lived, always-on culture of almost organic constant flux. But now there’s Tsū, a lighter and slightly bluer green than Vine, and offering a very different kind of experience.

Continue reading Social network Tsū opts for green – they’re in the right spectrum for connectedness in my column at The Conversation.

Join Tsū via my shortcode.