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After injury in Afghanistan, recovery in a virtual world

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Sam Brown, who was injured in Afghanistan, used a virtual program called SnowWorld to manage the pain of his recovery.


For Sam Brown, even the horror of being set on fire by an IED in Afghanistan paled in comparison to the difficulty of putting his life back together afterwards. Unsure how to manage Brown's pain during endless skin grafts and physical therapy, doctors first tried drugs like ketamine, which left him in a constant state of traumatic hallucinations. Finally, Brown turned to a new, experimental method: a virtual reality system that would distract him by simulating another world.

The pain management technology Brown used was called SnowWorld, profiled a year ago in this BBC News piece. In SnowWorld, a 2003 version of which is seen above, players "shoot" snowballs at penguins and snowmen while moving around an icy environment. It's not significantly different from a standard video game, except for two things: its extreme immersiveness and the content, designed to soothe burn victims with images of snow and water. These factors make it more effective than distractions like ordinary games or music, and mean that it can augment opiates to help manage even the most severe pain. As important as SnowWorld was to Brown's recovery, the GQ profile of him focuses not only on the technology, but also on the way in which Brown's injuries changed him, and on the potential applications of VR to other medical conditions.