How can VR help us better understand our brain and the way we think?
Crédits photos : Gerd Altmann (Pixabay)
There is so much we don’t understand about our brain. In our everyday lives, wearables are giving us body and brain insights, such as quality of sleep and blood pressure. But having access to deeper cognitive insights are reserved to the medical field. What if there was a better and easier way? Modern VR headsets are the key as they can recreate life-like environments and provide neuropsychological insights. With them, we can help understand neurological diseases and raise awareness on understanding cognitive processes.
Your smart watch doesn’t just tell you the time
We as a society have grown accustomed to wearables for years – whether you love them or hate them, fitness trackers in any shape or form are worn by many curious individuals who want to understand their own health in a more continuous way and outside the traditional doctor-patient setting.
Seamlessly embedded in an ecosystem of already existing devices (smartphones) and apps, wearables such as the Apple Watch have begun providing insights to their users in ways never before thought possible. Apart from their general utility in terms of productivity management, wearables today can measure blood pressure and saturation, sleep quality and activity patterns and are even starting to predict potential cardiovascular health hazards down the road because of that.
What if we could gain the same insights – in a continuous and non-invasive way – for how we think, how we process thoughts, how our memory works and how our cognitive load affects our attention, output and, eventually, mental and neurological health? According to SOMAREALITY, a Viennese start-up that creates digital biomarkers based on eye-tracking, it’s not a question of “if” but only a question of “when”.
Wearables are dead, long live VR!
Neurological monitoring is a powerful means to assess various cognitive functions and is traditionally performed in a laboratory, medical or clinical environment. Outside of those settings, no patient or user has access to it, requiring a 1:1 doctor-patient setup to get an understanding of one’s cognitive state. And even then, only a single snapshot is produced that cannot be benchmarked with arbitrary data from the same point in time last year, let alone last month or last night. While the Oura Ring, a wellness wearable that has gained notable attention in the last two years, is already measuring quality of sleep to a degree that allows it to translate those findings into concrete daily suggestions for how a user should go about their day, we lack a similar solution for our neurological and psychological state.
True, you can self-measure and track certain processes and thereby map, for instance, cognitive decline, over a period of time, just like you can subjectively measure pain and moods. However, there is no solution for seamless and continuous neurological monitoring on the market that provides an actual solution – one that addresses core issues like objectivity, clinical and technical validity, and scalability – from an end-user’s as well as a researcher’s or clinician’s point of view.
With eye-tracking capabilities built into commercial and professional Virtual Reality headsets as of 2021, the rules of the game are slowly but surely changing. While some hurdles still prevail, especially with regards to usability and comfort, Virtual Reality and eye-tracking combined are not only able to provide a better understanding of human attentional behaviour based on gaze tracking and heatmaps, but for the first time, also generate deep cognitive and neuropsychological insights in a controlled environment that mimics real life processes like no other technology can.
Virtual reality has a lot to offer to cognitive and neurological health
SOMAREALITY works exactly at this junction of technologies, building on their base by adding digital biomarkers to the mix that – based on eye-tracking alone – are able to generate these insights without the need for external sensors in a scientifically validated way. Their first commercially available algorithm, cognitive load, can be built virtually into any application that has users run through a certain task, process, training or game in Virtual Reality where it is crucial to understand how the user is doing.
With most of their client history as well as founders’ backgrounds in healthcare, they deploy their technology in use cases involving mental health and digital therapeutics, cognitive rehabilitation, and research in the broad field of cognitive, psychological and neurological health.
The first results speak for themselves: cognitive load is not only able to help users understand where their performance, attention or overall stress needs a closer look (in a Virtual Reality emergency training, for instance), but also provides real-time understanding of one’s own psychological needs (in a VR phobia session).
“But SOMAREALITY won’t stop there. Cognitive load is the first biomarker in a roadmap of plenty who even inform each other – think cognitive load + gaze tracking to finally accurately measure attention, for example. The goal is to provide neuropsychological insights for anyone, anywhere.”Adrian Brodesser – CEO de SOMAREALITY
Indeed, there is so much we don’t yet understand about our own brain and overall cognitive health while we all already know by heart how many steps to take in a day, how many minutes of exercise and how much sleep we really need to stay and feel healthy. SOMAREALITY addresses both ends of the spectrum with their vision: on the one hand, taking a holistic approach to understanding neurological diseases and cognitive impairment at an early stage by recognizing deviations from the norm and on the other hand, through their B2B use cases, creating general awareness for understanding our cognitive processes much like our physical ones.
To find out more, head over to SOMAREALITY’s website or visit them at their booth at Laval Virtual 2023!