A glimpse into the future: Virtual reality for vision therapy
When patients have conditions that affect their ability to receive and process visual information, they can often benefit from vision therapy.
Vision therapy can be used for conditions that aren't treatable with prescription eyeglasses or contact lenses, including problems with focusing, eye teaming, eye movements, or visual processing. As many as one in 10 children have a vision problem that can impact their school performance, but because not all of the problems can be determined through a traditional vision test, a screening can miss up to half of these problems. In order to correctly assess a child or adult’s vision issues, it’s important to consult with a developmental optometrist, or vision therapist.
Typically, a patient will work on an ongoing basis with a vision therapist. The vision therapist will prepare a custom treatment plan to assess, and then improve or even eliminate the patient's condition.
Generally, these programs are conducted partly in-office, and partly at home. A typical vision therapy program might include six hour-long sessions at three week intervals, paired with home-based exercises, finishing with a progress evaluation to determine whether additional therapy services are needed.
More recently, some vision therapists have added VR vision therapy as an innovative and effective treatment technique, especially when paired alongside traditional vision exercises.
What conditions can VR vision therapy treat?
VR vision therapy can be used in combination with traditional vision therapies to treat disorders of binocular vision, including strabismus, amblyopia, and convergence insufficiency.
Strabismus is often known as "crossed eyes," and means that the eyes do not look in the same direction at the same time and share a focus on an object. It can cause double vision and lead to headaches, eye strain, and reading difficulty or fatigue. As much as five percent of the population has this condition.
Amblyopia, or "lazy eye," means that the brain ignores information from one eye altogether, and is typically caused by untreated strabismus.
Convergence insufficiency (CI) is the term for when your eyes have trouble working together to focus on an object at close range.
All three conditions can lead to severe headaches, eye strain, and depth perception problems. But they all can be effectively treated by vision therapy — including VR vision therapy.
How does VR vision therapy work?
VR vision therapy can typically be used either in the doctor's office, or, in some cases, at the patient's home. It will require access to a VR headset and hardware set such as Oculus Rift, Oculus Quest, or other compatible devices.
One popular VR vision therapy app is Vivid Vision, which has been licensed by hundreds of eye clinics for both in-office and home-based use.
Vivid Vision is a more entertaining alternative to traditional vision therapy exercises, enabling patients to visualize a different image in each eye and use hand-tracking functionality to practice hand-eye coordination skills in a simulated environment. The platform offers six different games, including an asteroid shooter game; a 3D version of the Atari game, Breakout; and several other games that can be adjusted for difficulty levels.
The VR platform has proved to be highly effective in treating binocular vision conditions. The results of a 2019 study found that children came out of the treatment with close to 20/20 vision in their previously "lazy" eye.
A direct-to-consumer vision therapy app, Vision Therapy VR, is available on the Steam platform, and requires use of a virtual reality headset. This app works by providing visual guidance for sets of five exercises in a single session, which help your eyes to work in coordination. However, because this app is not affiliated with a vision therapy course of treatment, the goal here isn’t to improve your vision in a measurable way — only to keep your eyes healthy by using the app at least a few times a week.
In order to develop an effective course of treatment to improve or cure binocular eye conditions, it's important to use a vision therapist-recommended course of treatment, which might include VR exercises, at-home exercises, and even the use of an eye patch to improve eye focus in the "lazy" eye.
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Why use VR vision therapy?
VR vision therapy isn't necessarily a standalone treatment for eye conditions, but, when paired with other traditional techniques developed by a vision therapist, it can be an effective and entertaining way to improve a patient's condition. Here are a few key benefits:
It can be done at home
If the patient has access to a VR headset and hardware, they can perform the VR vision therapy exercises from the comfort and safety of their own home. This is ideal for patients who live in remote environments and can't easily get to a vision therapist's office, and it serves as an important option for reducing exposure to COVID-19 for patients who are potentially at high risk.
It's more fun
The VR simulations used in vision therapy are often based on video games, which means patients will actually look forward to playing them. In contrast, traditional vision therapy exercises can feel like homework — which means patients are less likely to comply and make progress with improving or resolving their condition.
The progress is easily measurable
Rather than conducting an assessment at the end of the course of treatment, VR vision therapy enables you to track progress in real-time, so vision therapists can easily make adjustments to training schedules and processes. They'll be able to ensure compliance with the program, rather than asking patients to self-report, which may not always be accurate.
For vision care providers, adding VR vision therapy to your mix of therapy tools is a fun and effective solution for helping your patients improve their outcomes. It's an opportunity to give your patients more opportunities to complete care from home, whether choosing a completely virtual model or pairing in-office and virtual care. It's also an opportunity to differentiate from other providers in your region by promoting an innovative form of care that achieves proven results.
VR for vision therapy is on the rise — by exploring opportunities to provide VR care, you'll be primed to meet rising patient demand and can build your practice by showing positive outcomes.