SnowWorld, 2006

Hunter Hoffman

Location: Seattle, Washington
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Imagine a design so powerful that viewing and interacting with it lower a person’s pain perception by half. That is what Hunter Hoffman and his University of Washington colleagues have achieved with SnowWorld. Designed for use with severely wounded burn victims, SnowWorld is a three-dimensional virtual-reality “game.”

Even with narcotic analgesic medication, burn victims can suffer excruciating pain during reha­bilitation; and treatments may continue daily for weeks or months. The program lures the patient into a virtual environment. As Hoffman notes, “Pain requires conscious attention, so by taking the user’s attention away from the pain…there is less attention available for the person to process the pain signals. The more the patient feels like he or she is in SnowWorld, the greater the pain reduction.” Once inside, patients are suddenly floating through the air along a snow-covered, canyon-bordered river. They have a 360-degree view of this glacial world, where images of penguins, snowmen, igloos, woolly mammoths, and robots suddenly appear. By pushing a button, the user hits snowmen with snowballs or splashes objects into the icy river.

To study brain activity during its use, Hoffman designed virtual-reality helmets which provide the wide peripheral vision necessary for a fully immersive sensation. When they tested SnowWorld, Hoffman and his colleagues found 50-90% reduction in pain-related brain activity in all five pain regions of the brain. Hoffman and collaborator Dave Patterson from UW’s Harborview Burn Center provide the software free to several national burn centers, which are also testing SnowWorld’s pain control with burn victims.

Since receiving his Ph.D. there in 1992, Hoffman has worked at the University of Washington, which is internationally known for creating unconventional models of team-based research. In 2003, he became the Director of the University’s Virtual Reality Research Center. His initial foray into VR therapy began with SpiderWorld, a program still used to desensitize people with arachnophobia. Following the World Trade Center attacks, Hunter and Manhattan therapist JoAnn Difede designed WTC World,
a virtual post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) therapy program. Dr. Difede has used the program to successfully treat nine survivors of September 11th, five of whom had failed to respond to traditional therapy. Hunter has recently worked with colleagues to develop IraqWorld for U.S. military personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; and BusWorld to treat Israeli civilian survivors of terrorist attacks. Hoffman observes, “As the technology continues to advance, we can expect more remarkable applications using VR in the years to come.”