Evelyne Klinger is Head of Research at the École supérieure d’informatique électronique automatique (ESIEA), a private engineering college which focuses on science and technology as applied to computing. She tells l’Atelier about new applications for Virtual Reality (VR) in the medical field, an opportunity which is now beginning to attract industrial firms.

‟Manufacturers are starting to get interested in Virtual Reality in the field of medicine”

At the Laval Virtual event hosted in Paris in June by innovation and new technology fair organiser Laval Virtual in conjunction with French multinational management consulting corporation Cap Digital and L’Atelier, we interviewed ESIEA’s head of Research, Evelyne Klinger, who has been working for a number of years on ways of using VR techniques as part of medical treatment and therapy.

L’Atelier: Have you seen any particular changes since you started working on VR in medical treatment?

Evelyne Klinger: Well, in fact we’ve been working on this for twenty years but it’s only now that manufacturers in France are starting to get interested. On the research front, work on medical uses of VR began in three main areas: psychiatric disorders, neuropsychology and motor disorders. My work involves using technologies to enable people either to recover lost capacity or to cope with particular problems. Basically this means managing their condition. It could simply be the result of a broken leg, a brain injury resulting from a car accident, or phobia issues. Plus there’s another area: use of VR simulation to help train doctors.

ll this work is being conducted in areas where the techniques have proved to be useful in teaching healthy people. The entire issue is now about whether they can be used for people who have various types of disability. In the psychiatric field, this is mainly about treating anxiety disorders with cognitive and behavioural therapies. This is already being done without VR, but VR could bring real added benefits.

You mentioned that manufacturers were lagging behind in this field. Has anything changed there?

I started out in the 2000s. When we unveiled our work in France, there was no response from industry, although we were receiving emails from patients who wanted to benefit from the work we were doing. The problem was that our work ended at the research prototype stage, so if it was to go any further, we needed to get a manufacturer interested and of course the manufacturer would have to see how to make it profitable. At that time there just wasn’t anybody. In the 2007-2008 period we were having huge difficulties finding manufacturers to back our work.

This has now changed because the scientific results have shown that these treatments work. Moreover, the technologies have become more available to ordinary people. So many tools –computers, Internet connections, software, graphic cards, etc – have become accessible to all. 

"VR technologies and medical therapies are closely interlinked"

Virtual Reality can be highly beneficial to medicine, we’ve seen that. Looking at the situation the other way round, could medicine help to drive progress in VR?

Well our work does raise new questions which require appropriate interfaces. For example we ran a project with Dassault Systems in which software issues came up which then enabled the company to pursue its own solutions. So the two fields are closely interlinked. Even more so since manufacturers have to adapt to the requirements of the medical world if they want to get into this market.

What about the availability of these solutions? Is price hindering growth in VR use?

Well, you have to get the price right, that’s clear. That’s all part of the manufacturer’s job. However, there’s little doubt that we’re going to be using all these technologies in our homes soon. There is a question mark over availability but that’s a different matter. First of all there’s the issue of people using VR therapies independently. Manufacturers will need to ensure that what they supply doesn’t do harm. Then there’s the question of how the data is used: Where does it go? Is it secure? Who uses it? And so on. These are the questions that we’re working on.

"One major risk is that someone who knows nothing about therapy will use these tools and pass him/herself off as a therapist."

One major risk is that someone who knows nothing about therapy will use these tools and pass him/herself off as a therapist. Moreover, it’s quite likely that a patient will go on to the Internet and say ‟That’s the condition I suffer from so I’ll use that solution”. That’s the risk of self-managing your condition. It’s clear that these technologies are not suitable for everybody. If a solution is based on formal protocols – similar to the procedures we have in place for medicines – then it can work.

By Guillaume Scifo