Hunter Hoffman, director of the University of Washington’s Virtual Reality Research Center, has a new take on how to deal with pain. He’s created SnowWorld, an innovative virtual reality program that distracts burn victims during painful wound care procedures with a glacial world of snowmen waiting to be pegged with snowballs. We caught up with Hoffman—one of the 87 designers in the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s Design Life Now exhibition—before his VR headset moves to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston on January 26.
Why did you choose to focus on burn patients?
Wound care of burn patients is one of the most painful procedures in medicine. So if you can get something to work with those patients, chances are good that it will work for other medical procedures. Patients report re-experiencing their injuries when getting their wound care so it’s almost like getting burned again when getting bandages changed.
Why did you choose to create a snowy world for the patients?
The snow and the icy imagery is the antithesis of fire. We’re trying to help the person escape from the fire. There’s a natural evolutionarily selected behavior to get away from the thing that’s injuring you and so people want to leave the treatment room. What we do with SnowWorld is say, ‘We need your body to be here to get the wound care done, but your mind doesn’t have to be here. Your mind can escape into this snowy canyon.’
How much does SnowWorld lower pain perception?
Dave Patterson and I get around 35 to 50 percent reductions on average. Todd Richards and I did some brain scans and studied pain-related brain activity, and there we found 50 to 90 percent reductions in pain-related brain activity.
With Nintendo’s Wii being used for physical therapy and now SnowWorld, do you think that medicine will be tapping into gaming technology more and more?
The gaming industry has created a $40 billion a year incentive for companies to come up with faster and faster computers, faster and faster video cards. The ultra fast, inexpensive computers are being used like crazy in the medical community, and the gaming industry is having a big impact on the quality of medical care and the computerization of western medicine.
How did you feel getting selected for Design Life Now?
It’s easier to believe that SnowWorld is well designed than it is to believe it’s a work of art. I think this exhibit is opening up the definition of design to include medical design. I was surprised to see that, and I think it’s a great idea.
(Photograph courtesy of Hunter Hoffman, UW Seattle)