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The future is VR

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In the mental health space, VR has been identified as a tool that could potentially revolutionise mental health therapy. Health Tech World learns more about the role of Emteq Labs in advancing this using both VR and AR 

 

In mental health therapy, therapists will often use techniques like CBT and exposure therapy to treat their patients, gradually exposing them to the experiences that trigger their mental health issue to build their tolerance. 

VR allows patients to meet their fears and anxieties head on in a safe and controlled environment that is cheaper and easier than traditional methods. 

In a hospital environment, VR is showing promise as a new tool for pain management. There is significant evidence suggesting that distraction can be an effective method for limiting pain and reducing the need for anaesthetics. With its ability to produce a fully immersive experience, VR is being tested as a new potential distraction therapy for use in hospital procedures. 

Emteq Labs is one of the leaders in VR technology in the UK and has developed a headset that can accurately detect people’s emotional state in real time during their experience. 

Last year, the company carried out a large scale study of 800 people over the course of four weeks at the London Science Museum to prove that its system worked. 

Each person participated in a series of 10 experiments within a VR installation that took them through a range of different emotional stimuli. The study was a success, finding that the device was up to 93 per cent accurate. 

“The emotional responses we were reading from our sensor interface and our machine learning interpretation matched what we expected to see in the first place and what people were self reporting in terms of how they were feeling through the experience,” Graeme Cox, CEO at Emteq Labs, told Health Tech World. 

“At the same time, we were building a very large-scale data set of annotated data that has allowed us to build the next generation of machine learning models for doing data interpretation of emotional response. It has allowed us to build a contextualised and personalised model of emotion which, for healthcare, is super important.”

According to Cox, most of the emotion analytics market generally works with a global model that assumes that all people respond to emotional stimuli in the same way. 

But of course, this is not how emotions work in reality. Emteq is developing a more personalised model that is sensitive to the nuances of emotional response. Rather than categorising people as ‘happy’, ‘sad’ or ‘angry’, Emteq places people on a two-dimensional table. On the y-axis is ‘arousal’ with bored at the bottom of the scale and excited at the top. Meanwhile, on the x-axis they measure ‘valence’, from negative to positive. 

“The majority of machine learning solutions are based fundamentally on very large scale data which then looks at broad classification across vast swathes of data,” Cox explained. “This means that the temptation is to go broad and shallow.

“What we’re doing is we take a slice of that so that we have a universal model, but then we calibrate and gauge that model for the individual through a learning process.”

This ability to accurately detect emotional state has huge potential for treating common mental health issues such as anxieties, phobias, depression and more. 

Emteq Labs’ largest ongoing study is looking at post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The company is working with the Dutch company, Sense Health which runs a remote therapy service specifically for PTSD patients. The Emteq Pro biometric mask is being used to monitor and measure how the treatment is working over time. 

“The lack of direct physical presence means that [therapists] are lacking some of the nonverbal cues that are available when
they are in a room with the individual.,” Cox said. “Our ability to provide some of those nonverbal cues in an objective manner means that therapists can make sure that the level of exposure that they’re offering the individual is appropriate.

“It’s kind of acting like a syringe. The vaccine that’s in the syringe, the treatment protocol itself, is being developed by Sense Health, but we’re measuring the dosage that is being delivered and controlling that dosage to make sure it’s appropriate.”

With the Covid-19 pandemic accelerating the adoption of remote treatment, Cox believes Emteq’s VR solutions could make remote talk therapy safer, offer therapists a deeper understanding of the treatment’s efficacy and tackle the growing issue of supply and demand in mental health. 

“Talking therapy is a very expensive and non-scalable intervention but it is absolutely crucial,” Cox said.

“Although the number of therapists in the NHS is set to increase dramatically through the five year plan that was put in place from 2019, the prediction is that the demand would still outstrip the supply significantly over that period. 

“The only way to break that cycle is to find a way for people to be able to treat themselves asynchronously as well as through interaction with therapists. 

“VR provides a way to access and go through [treatment] in the comfort and safety of your own home. But without the biometrics to measure that you’ve successfully completed the task and had the right responses, the therapist has no way of knowing whether it’s actually working or not.” 

Emteq’s ability to measure emotional and physiological responses has the potential to solve this issue by allowing clinicians to monitor their patients’ response to the treatment and determine whether it is working.  

In addition to its work with VR, Emteq Labs is also pushing the boundaries in the augmented reality (AR) space. 

The company has developed a pair of glasses that collect similar data to its VR device but this time in the real world. The wearable device is currently involved with two clinical studies. One is focused on monitoring the symptoms of depression while the other is looking at the glasses potential as an intervention tool for Parkinson’s Disease. 

The latter is led by scientists at Brunel University who have developed a system that can help patients who are experiencing a ‘freeze of gait’ event. This is when the patient’s brain will not allow their leg to make the next step. They are quite literally frozen on the spot. 

Brunel researchers discovered that if a marker is placed on the floor and the patient is asked to step on it, the debilitating symptom can be overcome. Using Emteq Labs’ state of the art AR glasses, Brunel University has developed a system that can display a marker showing the patient where the next footstep should be placed. 

“We have integrated our sensor array and machine learning to a set of augmented reality glasses which are looking at the Parkinson’s freeze of gait event,” Cox said. 

“It shows potential promise for not only helping with a debilitating symptom of the disease, but also including fall detection in the glasses so that if it all goes wrong and the freeze of gait results in somebody falling to the ground, the glasses can auto-detect [that] and trigger an emergency response via the phone.” 

The study is being wrapped up at the end of June and Brunel University is seeking funding to continue developing the technology and exploring how it could be commercialised.  

VR in healthcare remains a cutting edge solution that has not yet been widely adopted or commercialised. Cox believes that it will be at least another three years before the technology is properly approved for clinical use, however there are certain hotspots around the UK where the use of VR is growing rapidly with around thirty NHS trusts using the technology either in mental health care or pain management. 

On the consumer end, Cox sees huge potential in AR, comparing AR glasses with wearables like the Apple Watch. 

“Apple is slowly turning the Apple Watch into a health monitoring device, so this idea of a biometric wearable is not radical in any way, but the wrist is not the most informative place to understand people’s wellbeing,” he said. 

“Glasses are the next wearable device opportunity, because that is something that society already accepts as normal and it also happens to be the most informative place to put biometrics on the body. They provide opportunities for health monitoring which go way beyond the wrist watch. 

“That’s why I believe that glasses will become the next great healthcare wearable.”

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