Gadgets that once only featured in the sci-fi realms of Star Trek are now a reality thanks to the recent technological boom. Touch-screen and wireless devices, drones, and even goggles that can transport us to artificial worlds have been developed for tech-obsessed consumers. While some products have become a necessity in our lives, many inventions are viewed as novelty – a toy that is quickly dropped when boredom strikes.

The rise of technology, however, has left a bad taste in the mouths of some consumers. Numerous studies have established a link between mental health issues and our overuse of smartphones and social media. This frequent use has reportedly resulted in a growth of paranoia, body dysmorphia and depression. But what if we could harness this new technology to tackle the very problems it created?

Ryan Murdoch of virtual reality (VR) company Lucid Solutions is hoping to do just that. The games developer is creating prototypes to reduce stress and improve mental wellbeing, combining VR with brain-monitoring technology to help people meditate.

“Mental health is a massive issue, and we don’t give as much diligence and care to our mental health as our physical health,” said Murdoch.

“What I’m working on is guided meditation, and one of the hardest things is that people are often given a handout to learn how to do this. It (meditation) is uniquely experienced, and it’s different for everyone, so to teach it through a piece of paper isn’t great.”

Murdoch’s VR approach creates immersive, engaging virtual worlds and he believes that controlling these worlds with brain activity will allow users to experience first-hand the calming effects of meditation.

“Not everyone is comfortable with visiting a counsellor,” he added. “This method gives people the tools to engage with a helpful practice like this in their own time, space and way while receiving useful feedback in the process.”

Smartphone apps, which allow people to try their hand at meditation, have become increasingly popular in these stressful times. One app, Headspace, boasts millions of users across 190 countries. However, unlike VR, Murdoch argues that these apps don’t give user feedback which is crucial in people making progress.

“With meditation, you practice, and you follow instructions – but you never know if it’s working. In apps like Headspace you don’t get validation or feedback, so the VR method affirms this practice. Especially for people who are already practising meditation, it can be an affirmation that the work you are doing is helping – it’s like a pat on the back. People get a sense of gratification with that.”

The system provides feedback by playing relaxing music to match your mental state. The more at ease a player is, the better the response in the game. It is through this method that the user learns which techniques to adopt to promote relaxation.

Murdoch explained: “Using dynamic music as an example, the system takes your registered brainwaves and finds the ones that are relevant to meditation. The ones that are common to the state, I feed it into the game music. So, 100 is super-relaxed, and say the bottom of the scale would be only white noise and static – not relaxed – but when you begin to relax it fades into calming music.”

However, as the popularity of VR grows, Murdoch was keen to sound a word of caution about its potential for misuse. As it gains further success, more and more companies are now attempting to “slap it on everything”, he said. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – he remains committed to creating valuable uses for the technology and is currently a developer at Immersive VR Education – a virtual/augmented reality software company which focuses on delivering educational content for its clients.

“As an exciting technology VR is getting a lot of interest and traction in marketing and PR. The problem with this is that often ‘medical applications’ of the technology can be more technology for technology’s sake, rather than actual valuable use cases. We need to sift through the novel approaches to find the meaningful ones – the areas where VR can really add value.”

Studies have shown that VR is successful in pain management, while also treating phobias, PTSD and autism in a safe and controlled environment. Earlier this year, a mental health project that aims to deliver psychological therapy via VR was awarded £4 million after winning the 2017 i4i Mental Health Challenge Awards run by the National Institute of Health Research.

The project, led by Professor Daniel Freeman of Oxford University’s psychiatry department, was a collaboration of NHS trusts, a mental health charity, universities, the Royal College of Art, and Oxford VR – a spinout company of the university which was co-founded by Freeman. This form of “digital medicine” involves treating patients by placing them in a virtual simulation which they find distressing. Using a virtual therapist who offers personalised treatment, they learn techniques to help cope with the situation, which transfers over into their own real-life experiences.

Freeman said: “In VR, people can repeatedly enter simulations of the everyday situations that trouble them and be guided in the very best ways to think, feel, and behave. The beauty is that the conscious awareness that these are simulations allows people to try things that they would be wary of in real life, but the learning leads to major benefits in day-to-day life.

“Mental health disorders are all about difficulties in everyday situations. For instance, individuals with social anxiety get fearful around other people, individuals with alcohol problems find it hard to resist a bottle of drink, and individuals with PTSD can get marked anxiety in response to reminders of the trauma. In VR, people can experience carefully graded recreations of their difficult situations, which brings on their symptoms, but then be coached how to respond.”

The work will take place over three years, with an initial design stage in year one, followed by a large-scale clinical trial in year two, and finally a “roadmap” in year three to implement the VR treatment across the NHS. Freeman recognises the potential of VR in treating mental health sufferers but maintains there will always be a need for human therapists who can offer compassion and help, during particularly complex issues.

“The technology of virtual reality is not a remedy in itself. It is a tool that has to be used correctly,” he said. “The content of the VR matters hugely. Poor execution of VR leads to disappointment with the technology; great execution of VR will change lives.”

Other Cool Tech:

1. Smart bandages

This intelligent bandage continuously monitors chronic wounds and delivers targeted drugs to speed up the healing process. Each bandage fits the unique requirements of the patient and responds to their body’s needs in the most effective way.

The bandage is sensitive to temperature and PH changes, and its responsive elements mean that drugs are released to the site of injury, as soon as they are required.

Another smart bandage uses 5G networking – similar to technology in the very latest mobile phones – to monitor patients during the wound healing process. The device gathers and then relays patient data back to their doctor. This allows a personal recovery plan to be created for each patient. The bandage is currently in the development stage at the University of Swansea.

2. Smart inhalers

The smart inhaler is a Bluetooth connected device that is changing the way asthma suffers take their medication. Developers of the inhaler claim that it allows patients to monitor their condition more effectively, by prompting them when their next dosage is due. It is hoped that this coaxing method will help sufferers stick to a routine. The inhaler is synchronised to the patient’s smartphone, which automatically records data and transfers it to the clinician via Bluetooth. This data helps clinicians understand the factors that contribute to their patient’s asthma attacks, so they can tailor individual treatment plans.

3. Electronic skin

Imagine being able to view your own heart rate through a stick-on patch. Researchers at the University of Tokyo have developed an “e-skin” which monitors and displays your body’s vitals by using small sensors. The patch displays a small electrocardiogram waveform, to keep you updated on your health. The medical data gathered from the e-skin, is relayed to the user’s smartphone for convenient viewing, or to the cloud for storage. The artificial patch is the result of the university’s collaboration with Japanese company Dai Nippon printing, which plans to release it for public consumption within the next three years.

4. Tooth sensors

Sticking to a diet can often be a difficult feat – but this tooth sensor offers an easy way to stay on target with your fitness goals. The discreet wireless sensor, which is connected to a smartphone, attaches to a user’s tooth, and monitors their intake of sodium, glucose and alcohol as they are consumed. This ensures that users are updated on their diet in real-time. The new technology was announced in March by developers at Tufts University School of Engineering.

5. Eye disease scanner

Detecting over 50 different eye diseases in a matter of seconds, is almost impossible for a trained professional. However, an automatic algorithm has been created which can do this very thing- and without the need for a clinician. The technology correctly diagnoses patients eye scans 94.5% of the time and can detect the three most serious eye diseases - glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration. The system also refers patients who require urgent medical attention. Researchers and ophthalmic surgeons at Moorfields hospital, are part of the DeepMind artificial intelligence (AI) team, who created the cutting-edge technology.

6. Robo bots:

Soon, nurses will be assisted by smart robots who will take on a third of the current workload which faces NHS staff, according to a report by Lord Darzi. It claims that introducing AI powered staff could save the NHS an estimated £12.5bn a year. The smart bots will be used to carry out repetitive administrative tasks in hospitals, while bedside robots will transport meals to patients, and even help them in and out of beds. The report also claims that “home help care bots” will be able to assist patients with washing, feeding and dressing themselves.


Like it or not, artificial intelligence will play an ever-more-central role in our hospitals and how we are treated in years to come, experts believe.

Gone will be the days when matron knows best – that will increasingly become the role of new even more advanced computers programs and algorithms or other AI-powered technology.

Charlotte Chorley, of DeepMind, the company behind a new hi-tech eye scanner that has the potential to revolutionise the work of opticians, said: “The NHS does an amazing job despite increasing strains on already hard-pressed services.

“We believe that advanced technologies ¬- such as AI - have a potentially huge role to play in supporting healthcare professionals. If this kind of technology were to become widespread in the NHS, that could make a big difference to patients, healthcare professionals and the wider health service.”

However, she admits that there are many barriers to overcome before this is achieved, and that the NHS are still lagging behind in terms of development.

“Crucially, the NHS needs better basic IT tools. AI and advanced technologies can’t be much help in a system where doctors and nurses are still communicating through pagers and fax machines, and test results are printed out on paper. We need to bring into the health service the kind of mobile technology we take for granted in our personal lives.”