Healthy Escapes: Veena Somareddy’s Neuro Rehab VR
Veena Somareddy is on the wave of this cutting edge field. Her Neuro Rehab VR company provides virtual reality experiences to patients with neurological medical conditions. She’s partnered with the Neurological Recovery Center in Fort Worth, where she is working directly with patients to tailor VR experiences for them.
The way it works is that the VR games help patients rebuild the synaptic connections in their brain by performing activities like shopping in a store. This is a step beyond pure rote exercises – according to Neuro Rehab’s website, those are not nearly as mentally regenerative. The virtual landscape adds context to a patient’s exercises that helps invigorate them mentally.
VR has made a comeback towards relevancy after a few decades of never catching mainstream attention. As its presence grows within gaming and healthcare, Neuro Rehab gives it a place right here in Fort Worth.
Helping People Through VR
Veena Somareddy’s journey to this point grew from a passion for technology and gaming, but most importantly for helping others.
“I like building new products and creating new technology for the betterment of people, or helping people out,” Veena said. “At the end of the day that makes me feel better about what I do versus creating something that was not useful to people.”
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Veena has held a lifelong, keen interest in technology and is “the kind of person who buys news stuff from Kickstarter before it’s released.” Veena has been into games since she was a young child and, by proxy, was enthusiastic about VR before it came back onto the market several years ago. From this, she first explored game design and development as a career.
But ultimately Veena wanted to take her passion for the tech behind games to a field where she could help people. She thus decided to focus on integrating new technology into healthcare.
She had begun her work in academic research in a virtual reality lab at UT Dallas around 2013. A couple years into her research Veena turned to making VR experiences for medical simulation and training.
She focused on building products based on new software and VR tools and would talk with people in healthcare, or other industries, on different use-cases for these products. Her process was connecting the dots between the technology she had and what could be done for different problems that physical therapists and patients were experiencing.
Her focus remained on this specific endeavor – founding and running a company was not necessarily in her plan.
As Veena explained, “I didn't ever you know for longest time then think of myself as an entrepreneur. It took me a while, as when people started calling me one I was like, ‘Okay, I guess I’m an entrepreneur now.’”
But through her work she connected with her cofounder, Bruce Conti, online. He ran the Neurological Recovery Center in Fort Worth and had been interested in bringing VR into his clinic.
“And it was just a meeting and then I was like, this is perfect. I can create these apps that the patients here will then use and I can see how it's actually helping them … enough that I can build better products.”
When they saw patients and therapists using it, they understood that VR had the potential to revolutionize healthcare.
She didn’t realize until further in the game that she had become an entrepreneur. She hadn’t intended to start a business, but through her ideas being discovered and going into a business venture she was suddenly right in the middle of that life.
Direct Feedback, On-the-Spot Iteration
The best way to sell VR is to let someone experience it. When Veena demonstrates her VR products to therapists, they come up with new, creative ways to use it. “They have more ideas than I could ever think of,” Veena says. They understand its use and potential.
VR works in this field because it eliminates the myriad buttons that can be a barrier to traditional gaming experiences. Playing a VR game involves motions with the arms and head while one wears a headset and usually holds wand-like devices. Any buttons presses can be simple and minimal. So there is a learning curve, but not a steep incline right at the start.
As Veena explained:
“[VR] is pretty much what you would do in real life. So if you're going grocery shopping, you would do the same exact movements as you would as picking up an object and putting it into your cart. Once they actually experience it, they're like, this is great, this is very intuitive, and I can do this … my elderly patients love it.”
For more on Veena's journey though the challenges of creating neurological recovery experiences, give the accompanying podcast a listen!
As adaptable and intriguing as VR can be, integrating it into the world of therapy is still very, very complex. Veena’s technology is being used by a variety of patients with different conditions, abilities, and constraints. Figuring out something for each of them is a challenge.
“In the beginning the biggest barrier was when we started to create the experiences we had patients with very different functional levels,” Veena said. “[S]pinal cord injury patients who are athletes are more functional than some of the traumatic brain injury patients … or MS patients with very little movement. And it was kind of complex for us to create these apps [so they work] with everybody.”
Veena had undertaken a very difficult endeavor. The situation bore the complexities of technology and the pressure of healthcare.
She found her way through the complexity by working one-on-one with patients in the field. Neuro Rehab VR works directly with the clinic at Neurological Recovery Center and, prior to the pandemic, had their own space within to setup their technology and let therapists and patients try it out.
This on-the-floor iteration cycle proved very quick. After trying out one piece of software, within a couple hours Veena and company could have the patients try out the next and then receive feedback. This was vital because Veena could not gauge the effectiveness of a VR experience on her own given her purposes here. As she said to me, an able-bodied person testing VR therapy only goes so far when the end user is disabled in some capacity.
Though there are several complexities to this process, Veena has taken on this burden because it has been a natural branching out of her passion. There are rewards in such pursuits.
“I think I love it when patients get really into VR, and so do our therapist, and they're like, I can do something with this that I wouldn't be able to do otherwise,” Veena said. “And that's when you know that you have created a product that's … a vitamin versus a painkiller.”
As noted in the introduction, VR experiences not only take the patients’ minds off of their impaired state, they also improve their neurological condition.
VR’s Future in Healthcare
According to Veena, VR in healthcare isn’t just a temporary trend, as the technology makes sense for the industry.
Since VR came back onto the market, everyone was looking for its breakthrough moment. Gaming was generally the field of interest, but Veena said that healthcare, education and training offered ideal complements to VR technology.
As Veena explained:
“When it comes to healthcare, especially for therapy, you'll be able to … immerse a patient in that VR scenario … [so they] forget about what they cannot do and they’re able to do more, and you're working with the neuroplasticity of the brain.
“And when it comes to training … you’re encoding both your muscle memory and also your focus and movement into what you're learning, versus just watching a video. … And I think that's why there's a big push for VR in these three verticals … it's finding a really good market fit on the enterprise side of things for healthcare and training and education.”
Neuro Rehab VR is also looking into how to adapt their VR therapy for at-home use. New hardware like the Oculus Quest could make that a possibility.
With its versatility, VR has future potential in non-gaming fields like healthcare and in homes or businesses. Veena’s passion for technology and people led her into this new frontier. The busines Neuro Rehab VR allows Veena a platform and a field in which to test her work one-on-one with patients. It’s marrying the practicality of a business with an academic, research-based background. Veena has found a way to bring VR out of the lab and directly to customers.
Note: The quotations may have been edited for grammatical purposes and to remove chit-chat phrases ("you know", etc.) or repeated words ("and, and", etc.). The audio in the podcast may have also been edited to remove chit-chat phrases, repeated words or long periods of silence.