The next time you have a headache, a Swedish pharmacy wants you to strap on a virtual reality headset and pretend you're sitting next to a campfire by a lake in Sweden, watching the Northern Lights as night falls.
The pharmacy, Apotek Hjärtat, designed a free VR app for pain relief called Happy Place.
"Pain prevention is not just pharmaceuticals," says Annika Svedberg, head pharmacist at Apotek Hjärtat. "There are alternative ways to treat pain, for example with exercise or massage. With Happy Place, we wanted to offer people the opportunity to try a completely new way to manage their pain."
Several independent studies show that virtual reality can help the brain stop focusing on physical pain. One early VR game called SnowWorld helped burn victims reduce the amount of time they spent thinking about pain from 76% to 22%—even when the pain was severe. The VR equipment used in SnowWorld studies costs tens of thousands of dollars. Now, mass-market headsets are making VR pain relief more accessible.
The pharmacy's simple app lets someone sit near a mountainside lake during the day or night. "There is evidence that simply spending time in nature has a therapeutic value, and the scientists are investigating if the same effect can be reproduced with virtual nature," says Svedberg. "And we knew from the start that we wanted to create something that felt like a place, to create this effect we opted for day, night, and weather cycles to make nature seem more real."
Because their budget was limited, the app doesn't try for photorealism, but they say that the cartoonish style might improve the experience. "A counterintuitive fact about VR is that stylized rather than realistic art direction actually helps in suspending disbelief and maximizing presence," she says.
The pharmacy envisions the app typically being used along with painkillers, though some research suggests that in some cases virtual reality on its own can work as well as a drug. In some circumstances, people might not have a choice but to turn to drug alternatives.
"There is a limit to how many painkillers you can take in a day, and in these cases it could be very helpful to use a VR app like Happy Place as a complement to painkillers," says Svedberg.
"The challenge now is figuring out first where and what situations in which apps like Happy Place can add practical and real value," she says. "There are plenty of situations where you are experiencing pain and won’t necessary take drugs, but still would enjoy escaping the world and the body for a while with an app like Happy Place."
The other challenge: Most people don't yet own VR headsets. The pharmacy will also let people use headsets in some of its locations, but it might take a long time before most people can use this at home.
The app is available for free download in the Oculus store.