Three-hundred-sixty-degree virtual reality (VR) videos are readily available on YouTube and other social media websites. They are potentially a free resource for clinicians looking to quickly obtain a wide variety of VR content. However, little has been published on the characteristics of 360-degree virtual reality medical videos and how actually immersive they may be — until now.

Scientists at Stanford University recently published their results of a study into emotions triggered by immersive virtual reality videos. They did this with the aim of creating a public collection of immersive VR videos with corresponding measures of effect, which researchers could then utilize for other projects. Published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the authors also released their public database through the Virtual Human Interaction Lab website.

The authors collected and analyzed the responses of 95 college-aged participants to a variety of 360-degree online VR videos. These are typically created using one 360-degree camera or a collection of cameras allowing a viewer with a VR headset to watch a video in all directions.

Researchers sought to establish objective emotional ratings through valence (measure of negative or positive value based on attractiveness to user) and arousal ratings (calming versus stimulating to the user) calculated off of participant feedback. In general, both measurements are utilized in psychology circles for describing affective experiences. They also examined correlations between head movements and participant-reported emotions. Users wore an Oculus Rift VR headset and utilized the Rift remote to select the emotions they experienced with a validated measurement tool (self-assessment manikin) on the display.

A total of 73 VR videos were used, with each participant watching up to 12 while seated in a swivel chair. Participants were given breaks between multiple videos and rated the videos after each viewing.

Researchers were able to assign valence and arousal ratings to the videos studied, and these may be found here.

Of note, videos found to be both highly arousing and highly associated with positive emotions included Speed Flying (wingsuit pilot flying through the mountains), Mega Coaster (roller coaster ride), Greater Hammerhead Shark Encounter, and Walk the Tight Rope. They found that negative stimuli combined with significant arousal was lacking amongst studied videos — likely related to a content policy prohibiting graphic and/or violent videos. It’s typically thought that greater user head movement in VR demonstrates greater user immersion. This general concept was somewhat validated by the findings of greater head pitch (up and down movements) correlated to arousal, and greater yaw (side to side or twisting movements) correlated to user valence.

This is the first study I am aware of that has investigated such publicly available VR content. While it clearly provides interesting data for psychology researchers, it also provides a potential database for those investigating virtual reality in medical applications. This is especially true for those looking to provide enhanced analgesia and distraction through VR.

There is still limited understanding of how VR actually works in terms of pain control and user immersion, and studies such as this are certainly welcome.