By Kevin Howell

Virtual reality is creating a lot of buzz and has plenty of people talking and businesses examining how they can implement this immersive technology into their product lines.

While virtual reality (VR) technology has been around for decades, the consumer market has taken off in the past couple of years with the introduction of products such as Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, and HTC Vive.

Combined with augmented reality, virtual reality is expected to be a $162 billion industry by 2020.

But does the technology have a purpose beyond games and entertainment? Absolutely. Militaries have been using VR for years to train soldiers through simulations, and companies are finding ways to implement VR into space exploration.

Here are some ways virtual reality can improve society.


Medical surgery is a high-stakes activity that can often mean life or death for patients. Each patient presents a unique challenge for surgeons. Virtual reality is being used to prepare doctors for high-risk operations.

Engineers from Surgical Theater created a VR product that assists surgeons preparing for brain surgery. The technology uses MRI scans to create 3D models of a patient’s skull. Through virtual reality, surgeons can explore the malformed region of the brain and design a strategy for entry, elimination, and exit.

Virtual reality also helped a doctor prepare for an operation on a baby’s heart, allowing him to plan the procedure ahead of time and save the child’s life.

VR simulations can also better prepare medical students. Instead of examining plastic models, they can have an immersive experience in their training.


VR engages the cognitive senses like few other technologies, that’s why psychologist are using it to help their patients.

Skip Rizzo, director of medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California, has been using VR since the 1990s to help rehabilitate patients. Much of his recent work has been helping veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The therapy puts patients in a simulation of the environment they were traumatized in to help them confront it and overcome it.


One of the biggest ways VR is impacting society is enhancing education. Schools and universities are using the technology to revolutionize teaching.

A Pennsylvania high school has been using HTC Vive devices to help students prototype and design projects. “Virtual reality allows us to build digital solutions and prototype extremely fast in 3D rather than sketching it on an actual piece of paper,” said Tony O’Neal, a teacher at Milton Hersey School in Hersey, Pa.

In addition to design, VR allows students to explore places they may never have the chance to visit. Google Expeditions has provided more than 100,000 virtual reality headsets and lesson plans to elementary schools, allowing students to explore everything from oceans to the surface of the moon.

Those are just a few ways virtual reality is impacting society. As engineers continue to solve problems and assist communities with technology, virtual reality will surely play a huge role in their solutions.

Do you have an idea for improving a community or meeting a specific need through virtual reality? EPICS in IEEE provides grants for technology related projects that provide solutions for communities in need. Find out more at