Virtual reality adventures for people with MS

December 21, 2020 Swedish Neuroscience Team

A wide range of virtual experiences will soon be available through the MS Adventure Program at Swedish.

  • VR headsets let participants experience virtual activities as if they were actually happening.
  • Phase one features custom video content with a variety of activities and locations.
  • Activities will center on providing calming, adventurous or creative virtual experiences.

[2 MIN READ]

An innovative program starting at Swedish next year expands the opportunities for people with multiple sclerosis (MS) to experience activities they might not have access to otherwise.

The Swedish Multiple Sclerosis Center’s Adventure Program offers fun and challenging activities for all people with MS in the greater Seattle area. Caregivers, families and friends are also welcome to attend. Past events included an extensive selection of choices such as cycling, rock climbing and fine arts classes focused on expanding the horizons of every participant.

Unfortunately, the restrictions prompted by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic put the program’s activities on hold temporarily.

For Simon Gale, BA, BS, OTR/L, an occupational therapist, and the Adventure Program's adventure guide, stopping all activities indefinitely was unacceptable. For years Simon’s been interested in adding virtual resources to the Adventure Program’s offerings. “But I could never figure out how to make it happen,” he says.

Then COVID-19 happened and Simon had renewed interest to investigate available virtual resources and how they might be used to expand the opportunities for the people with MS in the area. A patient introduced him to Jeff Rayner, CEO and founder of the Seattle-based VR company MXTReality. The rest is history.

“My interest in the field accelerated rapidly,” says Simon of the partnership. “I’m not the kind of guy that uses the word ‘exciting’ very often. But this is both fun and exciting.”

Virtual reality options

Simon and Jeff are working to create a virtual reality library with custom videos taken with a 360-degree camera. The videos are viewed with special VR headsets that make it seem as if the activity or location is real. A wide range of choices is planned, with activities that fall into three categories:

  • Calming videos that feature serene settings like a rushing waterfall or a sandy beach. These experiences will center more on sounds and sights than on movement.
  • Adventure videos that simulate more strenuous activities and make it seem as if the participant is actually on a kayak, running a trail or taking part in some other activity that's a stretch for their physical abilities or comfort level.
  • Creative videos are set in a virtual world that allows participants to interact with each other, explore the space in detail and "paint" on a virtual canvas.

With the headsets, you're not worried about tripping and falling or any other physical restriction. You can look around and see your surroundings without fear of hurting yourself.

"You put on the headset, and it feeds you 100% of the visual information for the experience. You watch these videos, and you see it from a 360-degree view as if you were there,” says Simon. "With the headsets, you're not worried about tripping and falling or any other physical restriction. You can look around and see your surroundings without fear of hurting yourself."

One of the projects Simon is most excited about is the virtual art gallery they’re creating to take the place of the annual MS Art Show, which was canceled due to COVID-19 health concerns earlier this year.

"We didn't get to do our annual art show this year, but patients still submitted original pieces. We took photos of their work and created an online art gallery. You can actually walk around virtually and explore the works of art," says Simon.

Once completed, the gallery will also contain a virtual meeting space that allows multiple people to be in the room at the same time. Each participant chooses an avatar and uses that representation of themselves to interact with others using the program. While there, they can even paint virtually in space, which is "shockingly fun," according to Simon.

Plans for the program launch

The program hasn’t officially started yet, but Simon already says he has "lofty goals" for the future. He hopes to offer full sensory experiences that include smell to make them even more realistic. Once the Adventure Program starts meeting again, Simon plans to create more videos using their activities as the basis for an ever-growing content library. And after that, he'd like to use the technology as part of the rehabilitation and therapy services that he offers to people with MS. The potential is unlimited, he says.

Once the Adventure Program starts meeting again, Simon plans to create more videos using their activities as the basis for an ever-growing content library.

"All along in this whole pursuit, I've been the biggest doubter about virtual reality. My whole life, I've always thought of this stuff as stuff for kids, stuff for gaming. Not my thing at all," says Simon. “But I was wrong. Sure enough, as soon as that headset goes over your eyes, you know there’s something to this. It’s so immersive you just get into it.”

The virtual lending library is expected to launch in early 2021. There is no definite timeline for adding more services. Simon and Jeff are taking it slowly and keeping everything simple and easy to use.

"We won't be able to offer everything for everybody, but we want to make sure we have something for everyone," says Simon. "The sky’s the limit. We’ll see where it takes us.”

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Find a doctor

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow-up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Swedish remains committed to the safety of our patients, caregivers and the community at large. In response to the recent surge in COVID-19 infections throughout the Puget Sound, Swedish is taking extra precautions in safeguarding patients and caregivers from risk of infection by restricting our regular visitor policy until further notice.

Related resources

Coping with MS as a newly diagnosed young adult

Living with multiple sclerosis

Signs and symptoms of multiple sclerosis

Multiple Sclerosis Center serves a region in need

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

From deep brain stimulation to focused ultrasound to pediatric neurology, The Swedish Neuroscience Team is recognized as national experts to help people address a wide array of neurological conditions. Our goal is to provide useful and helpful advice and tips on non-surgical and surgical options to treat any disease of the mind.

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