Inner Focus: Using Virtual Reality and Data to Improve Healthcare
With birdsong as the soundtrack, I sit in the middle of a grassy landscape as sunlight reaches over the giant boulders that encircle me like loyal protectors.
I need this. I’m a stress case. Which makes me a good candidate to try out Inner Focus®, a virtual reality (VR) app developed by EPAM to help people relax.
Inner Focus is much more than an app. It’s a modular platform that can be used by healthcare companies to marry the best of biometric sensing (and the data it produces) with machine learning analytics to personalize VR experiences that could help manage pain, combat PTSD and treat a range of other issues. Inner Focus’ immersive experience platform seeks to leverage emotional data to improve relaxation.
What I’m trying out is the proof of concept, the VR app with the same name that promises to help me de-stress.
There are three stages to the experience — Flow, Focus and Reflect — and in the first one I clumsily drop the virtual jewels that I’m supposed to assemble like a puzzle to form a mandala. This is the Flow exercise, and as I death-grip the touch controllers to guide the brightly colored shapes into their designated spaces, I notice how impatient I am. I have to slow down to complete the task. I feel like I haven’t slowed down since March of 2020.
I’m not alone. With the pandemic still not squarely in our rearview mirror, the twin stressors of geopolitical crisis and inflation are fueling alarming levels of stress, according to a recent survey conducted for the American Psychological Association.
But there is hope. Research has shown that mindfulness practices like meditation and breathing exercises can lower stress levels.
Inner Focus is a novel way to do exactly that. After the Flow stage, I move on to the Focus stage, where I try to match my breath with a pulsing orb of blue light. I inhale and exhale as the circle waxes and wanes. In the final stage, Relax, all I have to do is close my eyes, stay still and listen to the soothing sounds in the background.
When I’m done, I see how close I got to achieving the pre-set relaxation goals with a scoring system, where 100 is the highest. I did a decent job in Focus because I was able to keep my eyes on the center of the blue circle as I breathed in and out. But stillness was a problem; I scored a 60 in the final Reflect stage.
My pitiful score of 45 in the Flow stage reflects my frantic, scattered attempt to complete the mandala quickly. Lesson learned.
I’m competitive, so of course I want a better score. As I start over, I take in all the tips for improvement: Let the mandala jewels rotate before I place them (slow down), keep my eyes on the center of the blue orb as I breathe (focus) and bring my body into “gentle stillness” (stop fidgeting).
Success! On the second try, I improve every score significantly and notice I’m not as wound up as I was before this virtual exercise. I’m curious about where EPAM will take this technology.
I reach out to two of the co-creators, Mikhail Glazyrin and Jonathan Lupo, who fill me in on the exciting possibilities.
Turns out there are seemingly limitless applications in healthcare and life sciences as well as manufacturing and industry. I’m reminded of EPAM’s investment in Teslasuit, a full-body smart suit, that delivers haptic sensations and collects biometric data from the user while they perform various activities in VR. I got to try it out by throwing fireballs and feeling music, but, like Inner Focus, Teslasuit has use cases in healthcare (like rehab) and industry (e.g., worker-safety training).
“We want to harness immersive technologies and biometric data to create long-lasting behavioral change,” says Lupo, vice president, Digital Experience Design, EPAM Continuum.
Right now, the app uses the VR headset to sense a user’s level of stillness, but Inner Focus is designed to integrate with a wide range of physiological sensors measuring heart rate, pupil dilation, galvanic skin response (perspiration) and other measures of emotional response. What promises to make the platform revolutionary is its ability to take that physiological data, analyze it in real time and use machine learning to personalize the VR experience for the user.
The heart of the platform is the personalization engine, Glazyrin says, which can take data, use it to identify emotional states and then employ that information to effect behavioral change. That could mean helping the user relax, focus better, manage pain or tackle other behavioral goals.
The reason it’s still undefined is because we want clients to use this platform as an accelerator, says Glazyrin, Head of EPAM’s AR/VR Competency Center. As a platform, Inner Focus is modular, scalable, extendable and configurable.
The platform includes a dashboard that can be customized to fit each use case. For example, in the case of pain management, the dashboard(s) could be used by patients, healthcare providers (to adjust the experience in real time) and data scientists to learn more about how groups and individuals experience and respond to pain.
In a training setting, the platform could be used to optimize how surgeons hone their skills or to better train safety protocols in manufacturing. High-risk, high-pressure situations lend themselves to this model because VR lowers the risks via simulation, while using biometric data to personalize and adapt learning.
Inner Focus asks big questions: If we can better train our brains, what potential could we unlock? Could we use data to improve human development?
But underneath it all, say Lupo and Glazyrin, is the very real potential to improve people’s lives. Now that my hands have unclenched and my breathing has slowed, I get what they mean.