How VR can be used as a powerful painkiller

31 May 2018

BreatheVR transports users to a virtual garden to help them relax. Image: PR Image Factory

While many of us might turn to a pill to alleviate our pain, artist Deepa Mann-Kler believes the cure lies in virtual reality. TechWatch editor Emily McDaid reports.

The global virtual reality (VR) market in 2018 is projected to be worth $17.8bn but in just three years, by 2021, it will be worth $215bn. For maths fans, that’s an increase of more than 1,107pc.

This enchanting market promise is attracting early entrants from other industries, including well-known artist Deepa Mann-Kler, founder of Neon.

“VR is the new immersive medium for artistic expression,” explains Mann-Kler.

Back in 2016, Mann-Kler first experienced VR for Bjork’s new album in Reykjavik – and it blew her mind.

She returned to Belfast and began developing VR applications, eventually turning to the health sector. “I’m totally committed to the idea that VR can alleviate chronic pain,” she said.

That’s why she developed BreatheVR, an experience that helps pain sufferers decrease their pain levels. Using a phone and VR headset, you look at a beautiful 360-degree garden with floating leaves and islands. The leaves move up and down as you breathe deeply.


Image: Neon

She explained that BreatheVR was born at Pain Hackathon, organised by the Department of Innovation and the Public Health Agency.

“My goal is to remove the phone – anything that makes it easier for users – so I’d be very interested in developing an app for the Oculus Go, for instance,” she said.

The Go has an inbuilt screen and comes with 32GB or 64GB of memory for saving VR experiences, games and films. Getting rid of the phone is an important step for bringing VR to the masses, some experts believe.

Neon’s tagline is: ‘Advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ – so, any iteration of tech that makes the experience more seamless will be embraced.

Also in the health space, Mann-Kler has developed Whack A Mo, partnering with Queen’s University Belfast. This augmented reality (AR) app distracts children as they undergo regular cannula procedures. “It’s particularly good for children undergoing chemotherapy who may need an IV line once a week,” she said.

The iPad and iPhone-enabled app will be trialled soon in a three-month pilot at Belfast Children’s Hospital. Mann-Kler said: “I’m greatly looking forward to the user feedback from this trial.

“In my research, I found out that the single biggest benefit to cognitive behavioural therapy training in pain sufferers was learning how to breathe mindfully.”

Although it’s still in an early phase, I asked Mann-Kler how she intends to bring this to market. “We’ll sell it directly to corporates, into health trusts, and directly to the consumer,” she said. “I have meetings with some large corporations in England next week to bring this to their employees.”

Mann-Kler said: “My motive is to use technology to enable people to feel human again. Opioids are not as effective as the drug companies claim, and they’re very addictive. There’s an opioid crisis here and in the US right now.”

She pointed to a study undertaken in the US by Ted Jones, Todd Moore and James Choo, who trialled VR with 30 pain sufferers. In that study, a 60pc dip in pain levels was reported by the subjects while they used VR.

artwork of neon dove

Release. Image: Deepa Mann-Kler

Mann-Kler has enjoyed a varied career. She was an equality advocate for 11 years, and wrote the first report on racism in Northern Ireland in 1996. She eventually took a career break to pursue painting, and her work is available in galleries and in public spaces. Her neon light installations can be viewed at the Ulster Hospital and the Crescent Arts Centre, among other places.

I wondered where Mann-Kler does her creative work.

“I have a studio in the garden. As a child, I taught myself to draw by copying comic books like Beano, and film art like Clint Eastwood films. At the moment, this work in VR is taking up 10 to 12 hours of my day, so painting is taking a back seat, but I’m enjoying expressing my creativity through the medium of immersive tech.”

Find Mann-Kler on Twitter here.

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland