Can devices such as the ‘Dream Machine’ improve mental health? Shreshtha Trivedi sits down for a chat with inventor and virtual reality expert Dr Jamil El-Imad to hear his views on virtual reality and how it can democratise wellbeing.

Imagine you are sitting in your home, wearing headsets. You close your eyes and when you open them after few moments, you can see a beautiful beach on Easter Islands along the Pacific Coast.  Or perhaps hear the fluttering of prayer flags in a monastery nestled somewhere in the Himalayas.

No, this is not a storyline for the sequel of the super hit film Inception in the making. Nor is this an attempt to create a new genre of science fiction-meets-cheesy-travel-writing.

Rather, I’m describing a slightly more prosaic but nonetheless fascinating ‘Dream Machine’: a virtual reality (VR) tool which claims to improve mental wellbeing.

Created by Dr Jamil El-Imad, an inventor, entrepreneur and research fellow at London’s Imperial College, the Dream Machine produces an immersive experience for mindfulness training to help treat anxiety, stress-related disorders and phobias.

I snap back from my reverie (I have a feeling Dr El-Imad starts his interviews by painting the above picture) to hear the veteran computer scientist explain that he came upon this idea of this VR device as part of his work on the Human Brain Project.

One of the two largest scientific projects ever funded by the European Union, the project aims to advance our understanding of neuroscience, medicine and computing.

I have a dream

According to Dr El-Imad, the Dream Machine provides virtual meditation by using a VR headset combined with a mobile EEG headset to monitor brain activity, along with other wearable sensors to monitor ECG signals, breathing patterns and any trace of physical activity. The EEG front signals are processed using advanced algorithms to gauge the level of user concentration and relaxation in real time.

So when the user wears the VR headset, close their eyes and then open them, they see icons for different experiences, which Dr El-Imad describes as “dreams.”

He says: “So here’s this exact replica of a beautiful beach on Easter Islands [as an icon]…it’s all foggy and you can’t immediately see it but hear some sound at soft volume. You are asked to concentrate so we can measure your brain signal.

“As the user starts concentrating, the fog starts clearing. The more they concentrate, the more the fog clears. And at the end of the session, we give them a recording of how long they were able to concentrate along with a score, which can be improved.”

In simple words, this means training people to concentrate and focus on therapeutic mindfulness, he adds.

Democratising technology

The idea of using therapeutic mindfulness as an alternative to treat mental ill-health has gained credence in the past few years. New evidence suggests that it can be useful in treating anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Dr El-Imad points out that VR technology can help in democratising these experiences as well.

“You don’t have to be rich and go to these exotic places to meditate and relax. You can be living in a in a one-bedroom flat in a polluted and congested city but still have access to these experiences and learn to control your mind and feel positive,” he says.

In fact, it can be used to cure the attention deficit disorder especially among children. “It is a big problem among children and this can be a fun way to teach them how to concentrate.”

With mobile phones, tablets, wearables and other digital devices overtaking modern life, even adults are susceptible, he adds drily.

Using technology to cure the problems caused by technology. Oh, the irony.

Need for digitisation

The conversation then moves on to how such technologies can be incorporated in different health systems.

Dr El-Imad thinks we are still quite far off from that scenario as healthcare is still not fully digitised, which should be a prerequisite, before moving on to these sophisticated technologies.

The veteran computer scientist recounts his experience of working in the pharmaceutical industry in the 1980s.

“Back in the 80s, health, media, finance and several other sectors were roughly at the same level digitally. However, when I returned to health sector in 2004, I realised how far behind we are in digitisation as compared to other sectors.”

He drives the point further by mentioning a report from Harvard Business Review in 2016 which compares the state of digitisation across different sectors (in the United States), in which healthcare sits uncomfortably lower down the chart, only above industries such as construction, hospitality and agriculture.

So what are the reasons for healthcare lagging behind as other sectors have zipped pass by?

“Technology moves like water – it will go wherever there is easy access. If the regulation is strict, it will go somewhere else,” he says matter-of-factly.

Challenges ahead

“We are still in love with pills, [big] pharma and all that and haven’t thought of doing things differently until recently.”

Another challenge is the prevalence of vendor system in healthcare.

The situation is similar to computing in my early years, reveals Dr El-Imad. “When I was working with different platforms before we had common protocols through Internet, every computer manufacturer had their own system. So if I wanted an IBM computer to connect to another system, I had to write some code.”

“It’s the same in healthcare today. We have fragmented data, however, for data to be effective it needs to be consistent, complete, comparable, relevant and timely.”

He says we should be able to look at data in the same way we look at our bank accounts – a sneak peek is all it should take to know if it’s accurate.

We know more about our cars than we do about our body. “You go to a car manufacturer and they can tell the car number, part number, which year, how many hours spent… and you can get a timeline report. Which country’s healthcare system can offer that?”

And then without waiting for an answer, he cautions that healthcare will only be able to exploit the AI-boom if the issue of data fragmentation is resolved.

“We need to have data organised for researchers, clinicians and digital machines to be able to do assistive diagnostics.”