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Virtual Reality & Brain Health: Where Innovation meets Human Health

LAB51 Featured Image AMIR B
By Anja Prosch
Anja Prosch

15 Min

October 12, 2023


VR is contributing to the field of brain health, offering innovative and immersive solutions to enhance cognitive training, therapy, and overall brain function to specific target audiences. Throughout the conversation, Amir emphasizes a strong commitment to both education and therapy, shedding light on the transformative possibilities that VR can bring to these fields.

Can you tell us about your journey and how you became involved in the fields of VR, brain health, and EdTech?

I grew up in Canada and initially worked as a market researcher after graduating from university. However, my path took a turn when I moved to Dubai during the financial crisis of 2008–2009. Due to the disruptions of that period, I found myself immersed in the world of mobile game publishing. For a considerable amount of time, I served as a mobile games publisher in the Middle East, focusing on projects with a social impact-oriented approach. These experiences gradually steered me towards ventures that aligned with social impact initiatives.

Around 2015, during my eight-year stay in the Middle East, I began to consider moving to Europe and transitioning into the virtual reality industry. Despite my lack of experience in this field, I spent four years writing about virtual reality for TechCrunch and VentureBeat.

This allowed me to gain expertise in various virtual reality applications across different sectors. After a few years, I came to realize that the most crucial and captivating applications of this technology were in the fields of education and healthcare. Consequently, in 2017, my team and I began planning the creation of a company at the intersection of these two sectors, emphasizing science-driven applications utilizing virtual reality.

In early 2018, we were accepted into our first accelerator program, marking the start of our entrepreneurial journey. Now, after nearly five years of running the startup, we continue to thrive in the ever-evolving landscape of virtual reality applications for education and healthcare.

Effectiveness and Scientific Validity

How do you ensure the effectiveness and scientific validity of the cognitive training exercises in VR-based medical interventions or treatments?

Neuroscientists, among others, helped to create our game designs. These designs undergo a process of co-validation, co-creation, and co-testing with external partners during the early stages of testing and design. We collaborate with esteemed advisors from renowned institutions such as Stanford, UCLA, and MIT. Working with top-tier neuroscientists and cognitive scientists from partnering institutes is crucial for a science-driven company like ours. It is critical, especially in the healthcare and clinical fields, to adhere to rigorous best practices while taking a slow and practical approach.

When it comes to the design phases, we primarily focus on translating existing neuropsychological assessments and tools into virtual reality. Much of the technology we utilize is not reinvented but rather based on well-established techniques and tools involving observations, body engagement, and comprehensive data capture. As a result, the validity of our approach is not a major concern since our tools are based on designs published in transparent, peer-reviewed journals.

In the realm of neuroscience-driven technology, the crucial factor lies in whether the medical community accepts it, rather than solely relying on medical validation. By publishing our results and designs, we contribute to the pioneering of new approaches in novel settings. Instead of asserting our authority, we recognize the importance of medical professionals in determining the best tools for specific purposes.

In our case, we firmly believe that we offer the most effective means of evaluating cognitive performance, particularly by considering multiple aspects of the human experience. After publication, it is ultimately up to potential users to decide whether they want to utilize our tools. That is the extent of our contribution.

Could you explain the concept of cognitive training in VR and how it can positively impact brain health?

There is limited evidence suggesting that these kinds of treatments have a therapeutic effect. It is still early in the research process, and our initial study last summer demonstrated some positive effects for ADHD, specifically improvements in processing speed. As a result, we are now planning a larger study to further investigate its potential benefits for conditions such as long-term COVID, ADHD, certain aspects of autism, and rehabilitation from brain injuries or sleep disorders. When external factors or conditions are affecting your performance, such as poor sleep or unhealthy habits, I believe this treatment can have a therapeutic effect and help you return to your normal level of functioning. Although, for individuals who are already healthy and functioning well, I don't think it can enhance their abilities beyond their natural potential. Its therapeutic usefulness lies in specific contexts and circumstances.

I believe the most important aspect is the educational perspective as well as its relevance to general well-being and fitness. When engaging with our games, you gain awareness of your strengths and weaknesses across 22 different cognitive categories. This allows you to perceive your unique profile and objectively assess your abilities in comparison to tens of thousands of individuals within your demographic and professional background. By understanding where you stand in relation to these averages, whether you are below or above average, you become conscious of your strengths and weaknesses in these areas. It may come as a surprise to discover certain aspects that you were previously unaware of. This self-knowledge empowers you to not solely rely on virtual reality and similar solutions, but to apply this understanding to the real world and explore alternative approaches.

For instance, I personally struggle with spatial orientation, which is notably below average. Generally speaking, I struggle with spatial navigation, orientation, and conceptualization. It is just something that comes more naturally to others than to me. Whenever I interact with people, I typically find myself performing at a lower level than them in terms of this specific knowledge, which is objectively demonstrated when we engage in activities together. However, this knowledge enables me to explore different opportunities, such as taking a carpentry class or engaging in physically active outdoor pursuits.

In my opinion, VR experiences should ideally last less than 15 minutes. I'm not particularly fond of using VR for gaming or similar activities. I believe that the real world is where I truly want to be. VR should be employed when there is a specific barrier that it can effectively and safely address, allowing individuals to transcend limitations in space and time. It offers an opportunity to engage in activities without self-consciousness or concerns about being observed. These unique aspects of VR can be harnessed to overcome barriers and enhance experiences in the real world.

Our games are designed for maximum 15-minute sessions, emphasizing the importance of engaging with them daily or a few days a week, month, or season. You can choose to use it as frequently as you like. From our perspective, it serves as a mental gym, similar to how I personally visit a physical gym a certain number of days per week. Just as you set a specific number of days for physical exercise, you should also allocate a certain number of days to engage in this brain gym.

Virtuleap Enhance
Take a look at Virtuleap's Enhance - the daily cognitive workout of fun VR games designed to help train your cognitive skills.

In your opinion, what are the key factors that contribute to the effectiveness and impact of VR-based learning experiences?

There are numerous factors to consider. For instance, some individuals are developing supplementary VR content specifically designed to enhance math and science learning for 13-year-olds. In such cases, it is crucial to have team members with backgrounds in those industries. As the CEO, my role involves providing a general plan for our direction, while the specialists I've hired and brought on board are responsible for creating the content. Their expertise and training in the specific subject matter are essential. Therefore, it is vital that someone with domain knowledge engineers the content.

Another aspect to consider in VR is user design, which incorporates a three-dimensional, spatialized experience. This presents various challenges related to accessibility and comfort. Neglecting these aspects can lead to issues. To address this, our content is designed to accommodate individuals with mobility restrictions, such as those using wheelchairs. We also provide colorblind settings and the ability to adjust font sizes to improve visibility and comfort. By considering user comfort and potential pitfalls, we ensure a better experience.

For example, our content restricts movement within a confined space, eliminating problems like motion sickness. It is crucial to be aware of such best practices in VR, including 3D-based spatialized content design, and to conduct thorough user testing.

Currently, we are developing a second product and conducting testing in collaboration with partners, including Roche, a pharmaceutical company, and a hospital in Lisbon, Portugal. We have completed three rounds of user testing with patients at the hospital. We carefully note what works, what doesn't, and areas that could be improved. Based on these findings, we iterate, make necessary design changes, and repeat the testing process.

We evaluate factors such as tolerability, comfort, and the effectiveness of the tutorial. This level of rigorous testing is essential not only in healthcare but also in educational environments, especially in VR. By considering different learning styles, such as visual or kinesthetic orientation, we strive to create an engaging experience for a wide range of users. Therefore, it is important to thoroughly think through and extensively test VR content, even more so than with traditional 2D screen-based content.

Can you share any success stories or case studies where VR has had a significant impact on patient outcomes or healthcare practices?

For quite some time now, people have been discussing virtual reality, and it's important to keep in mind that what we're experiencing now is the latest wave of VR. Prior to this, there have been at least three other waves since the 90s.

It's worth noting that the same applications have been attempted before, and there's nothing we're currently doing or envisioning in the realm of VR that is entirely new. In fact, I can't think of anything significant that has emerged since the 90s, maybe even the 80s. So, it's all about the technology being ready.

Since the 90s, the US military has been using VR to simulate environments for veterans suffering from PTSD. They employ a technique similar to exposure therapy, which is used to treat phobias.

By revisiting the traumatic experiences in a safe and controlled manner through virtual reality, they aim to help with PTSD. There are publications available on applications for treating veterans with PTSD and individuals with traumatic brain injuries. However, the number of actively used and validated solutions approved by regulatory bodies like the FDA in the US or DiGA in Germany is quite limited. Among them, pain management is prominent. Exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral modification techniques are commonly utilized to assist with smoking cessation, addiction treatment (drug and alcohol abuse), and obesity. As far as I'm aware, numerous teams actively use these applications.

Challenges and Adoption of VR in Education

What challenges exist in integrating VR into education? How can they be overcome, and how can the adoption of VR in education be accelerated?

In the United States, major companies like Meta have invested significant funds and resources to equip high schools with VR headsets and provide highly educational content. This content focuses on subjects like science and STEM topics, which have proven to be highly effective when presented visually and brought to life, rather than relying solely on textbooks.

Over the past couple of years, there has been a noticeable increase in high schools forming networks and implementing these technologies. However, it is still in the early stages and not yet integrated into mainstream curriculums. I believe this will change in the next two to three years, especially due to the declining attention spans caused by platforms like TikTok.

We may be facing a cognitive ability crisis, with students performing worse than ever before and showing less interest. This could result in an increase in depression. I apologize for sounding negative, but I genuinely believe that technology is leading us down a troublesome path, and it's not receiving enough attention. This is where VR and similar technologies can make a difference by re-engaging students who are finding it increasingly difficult to focus.

In the next few years, you will witness a significant increase in the adoption of VR and augmented reality (AR) in schools across Europe, Asia, and the United States. Not only will it be VR but also AR, as seen with Apple's recent announcement of their mixed reality headset, the Apple Vision Pro.

This blend of VR, AR, and mixed reality will bring a tremendous surge in educational applications. Several companies are already making remarkable contributions by providing students with engaging supplementary content to enhance their studies.

How can we ensure that VR is not limited to a privileged few and can be made available to a wider range of learners?

Well, the current best device out there now costs $400, so I don't believe it can be considered a privilege anymore. Nowadays, it's common to use a device that is shared among multiple people. If we talk about privileges, we need to redefine what that means because just a few years ago, the device was priced at $1,500, which was definitely a more exclusive stance. However, with the price likely to drop to around $250 in the next two years, even private schools can afford it since it can be shared among students.

On the other hand, the Apple Vision Pro is undoubtedly a privileged product, given its price of $3,500. However, I'm aware that they are developing two more devices, and one of them is expected to be much more affordable. Apple has never been known for catering to the mass market, as it's supposed to be a luxury brand. But the Meta Quest device, which is sophisticated and priced at a few hundred dollars, is the one I always recommend. So, I think there's a misconception surrounding this issue.

Ethical Concerns in VR Applications

How do you address ethical concerns in developing VR applications for brain health or education regarding privacy, data security, and potential negative effects?

Many of these issues are now being taken very seriously, especially when it comes to Meta and the constant scrutiny it faces. Personally, I find it rather foolish to continue attacking them, given that they have completely restructured their teams and company to prioritize data privacy, data rights, and responsible data usage. They have dedicated individuals working full-time to uphold these ethical standards. Sometimes, we tend to perceive the world as more sinister than it actually is, especially when we are not directly involved. It's easy to judge from a distance without truly knowing the people involved, but I do. And from my perspective, they are decent individuals. I don't have any special connection to anyone there, and they rarely even respond to my emails. Hence, I don't have any valid reason to make such claims. What I do know is that they are real people with solid backgrounds, impressive credentials, and exceptional intellect. They are not mere robots or fictional characters; they are genuine human beings with remarkable minds. They take these matters seriously.

Moreover, they are well aware that regulatory bodies like the FTC in the US closely monitor these issues. For instance, due to concerns about data collection, China-owned TikTok is currently facing or may have already faced bans in some US states. The gravity of these issues is widely recognized, and there are even nonprofit organizations solely dedicated to addressing them. It's a highly debated topic, and only a fool would dare engage in unethical practices in this domain.

However, there will always be individuals, be they criminals or simply ignorant people, who make mistakes. Fortunately, I know for a fact that people at Meta, Pico, HTC, and other companies like Apple are at the forefront, proactively anticipating potential problems and devising ways to safeguard these important aspects.

Future Goals and Contributions

Looking ahead, what are your goals and aspirations in VR, brain health, and educational technology? How do you plan to contribute to the advancement and positive impact of these domains in the coming years?

You know, our primary focus lies in unlocking the potential of neuroscience through virtual reality. We aim to utilize this technology to address cognitive disorders and mental illnesses like depression and explore the relationship between cognitive performance and data, comparing it with other technologies.

Our goal is to integrate virtual reality with traditional treatments, avoiding a standalone approach. We don't glorify virtual reality like others who throw around buzzwords such as the Metaverse or Web3. These concepts are not a reality and may take a long time to materialize.

We are not driven by buzzwords; instead, we are driven by a specific use case within this sector. We aim to narrow our focus on areas where we observe the most significant impact, possibly targeting ADHD. We believe our technology can counterbalance the negative effects of platforms like TikTok, which has been associated with the term "TikTok brain" due to its addictive scrolling and dopamine-driven mechanisms.

Our objective is to be a force for good, mitigating the harmful effects on our brain and subsequently improving mental health. While we recognize the importance of assisting other companies with wellness, productivity, self-knowledge, and educational curricula, our main interest lies in combating the detrimental impact on our brains.