Sympathy Through Technology

Virtual reality experience mimics disability to train health professionals.

ByABC News
February 10, 2009, 4:55 PM

July 5, 2007 — -- At Janssen Pharmaceutica headquarters in Titusville, N.J., drug makers, psychologists and psychiatrists have come together to create a new type of virtual reality experience.

It's called the Mindstorm and, while it may sound like a video game, this 3-D, virtual reality simulator, which looks like a small movie theater, is anything but child's play.

"The Mindstorm program is a virtual hallucination experience," Gahan Padina, a clinical psychologist and consultant for Janssen Pharmaceutica, told ABC News. "It gives an individual the experience of what it might be like to be a patient with schizophrenia."

It's labeled after many schizophrenic patients' descriptions of what it's like to live with this disease many say the experience of schizophrenia is "like having a storm in their mind," said Padina. Mindstorm was designed to provide mental health professionals, physicians, law enforcement officials and patients' families with an experience similar to that of their mentally ill patients, perpetrators and family members.

"The Mindstorm experience is one where people come into the simulator [and] start to view what an average day might be like for a patient with schizophrenia. It is set in a person's home and really designed to be a typical day, but the experience is one of what it might be like to have visual hallucinations or alterations in a visual field, sounds or voices commenting on your behavior on things around you, and even the smells and the different sensory experiences that patients might have and the intensity that they feel these experiences," said Padina.

Mindstorm's simulations are set in a variety of everyday locations and situations, from shopping at the grocery store to waiting in the doctor's office to riding the city bus.

But these "normal" experiences go from simulation to hallucination extremely quickly, bombarding its viewers with multiple voices; jarring sounds; disturbing images; delusional thoughts called "ideas of reference"; and even strange, often revolting, odors. To complete this full sensory experience, the designers of this 3-D simulator even added fans to create the sensation of wind in their participants' faces for a more realistic experience.