Creating Widely Accessible Spatial Interfaces: Mobile VR for Managing Persistent Pain

By David Schroeder, Fedor Korsakov, Joseph Jolton, Alex Haley, and Daniel F. Keefe

NOTE: This is an overview of the entire article, which appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of the IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications magazine.
Click here to read the entire article.

Virtual Reality has already played a valuable role in pain research. Recent commercial successes of natural user interface technologies have made it easier and more practical to extend research in spatial user interfaces beyond the lab. This article explores stereoscopic VR applications on a device as portable and widely accessible as a mobile phone that could eventually enable new VR-based therapies for patients on demand in their homes.

Researchers face challenges in helping patients with chronic pain. Because people suffering from arthritis, cancer, or chronic knee or back pain experience pain on a daily basis, having them come to a VR lab at a hospital or research institution whenever pain flairs up is impractical. The authors of this article developed three virtual environments.

The Mindful-Movement Environment focuses on mindful walking (slow walking to cultivate body awareness) and body movements such as moving from seated to standing positions. They used Unity3D and its iOS development toolkit (used by game developers) to implement the software for their examples. A separate virtual camera was tied to each of the two rendering viewpoints displayed on the phone. This was a unique use of the iPhone 4!

The engaging-multiple-senses environment. (a) A rendering from the patient’s viewpoint. (b) A custom vibrotactile device under the patient’s feet that creates the feeling of rushing water. Patients learn how to direct their attention toward one of the five senses by purposefully attending to stimuli in the environment.

The Engaging-Multiple-Senses Environment, teaches patients how to direct their attention toward one of the five senses by purposefully attending to stimuli in their environment. The authors developed a haptic device for this application by connecting an array of motors close to the skin to an Arduino Mega 2560 microcontroller which is connected to the iPhone via a Redpark C2-DB89 cable. The device communicates with the phone software that then sends a command to set each motor’s vibration strength.

The third VR environment, the Lying-Down, Guided-Rest Environment, teaches patients to consciously shift perspective and attitudes from, for example, “my pain is unbearable” to “pain is happening and can be held in awareness.” A small sensor on the patient’s finger is connected to the Arduino unit which detects the patient’s heart rate.

The interfaces and environments described in this article have already been adopted by psychologists studying pain management and could provide relief to many patients suffering from persistent pain.


David Schroeder ( is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota’s Interactive Visualization Lab.

Fedor Korsakov ( is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota’s Interactive Visualization Lab.

Joseph Jolton ( is an adjunct professor in the Web and Multimedia program at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

Francis J. Keefe ( is a professor of medical psychology in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Duke University Medical Center, where he directs the Pain Prevention and Treatment Research Program.

Alex Haley ( teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing.

Daniel F. Keefe ( is a McKnight-Land Grant Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota, where he directs the Interactive Visualization Lab.