How to choose a headset for a mental health VR app

So, you’ve decided to make a mental health VR application. A VR application that is meant to help people in their pursuit of well-being and assist therapists in their fight against phobias, stress, anxiety. You have an idea who it’s for, what it should do, and you are ready to start the development.

You come to a development team and one of the first things they are going to ask you is “What platform should it be built on?” If this question makes perfect sense for you and you don’t hesitate with the answer, kudos! If this question makes you scratch your head, here’s help.

Under a VR platform, we usually understand a device which serves as a medium of immersing a user into the virtual world. Sometimes it’s called a VR helmet, a headset or, to be technically correct, a head-mounted display (HMD). Whichever you choose to use, the idea is the same — a couple of lenses with a whole bunch of additional technology to to convince you that you stand in the middle of a computer-generated environment.

Recently, the number of available headsets has grown significantly making it even more challenging to find a perfect one for each particular project. On the other hand, a wide range of options gives more chances to get exactly what you need without compromising.

So how to make a decision? It will depend on a number of conditions specific to your healthcare app. Here is a list of things to consider when choosing a VR headset for a healthcare application.

The user

As we talk about a mental health VR application, the target audience for it is very different from those who are just curious about how VR works. Being a therapeutic tool rather than entertainment, a VR experience should be designed and implemented with patients in mind.

Comfort

VR can be used to help with many mental conditions, including PTSD, chronic and acute pain or phobias. The last thing a therapist wants is a patient feeling uncomfortable. So one of the most important factors in choosing a headset should be its comfort. An HMD shouldn’t be too heavy and must be bearable even after prolonged use. Mobile or standalone headsets are typically more lightweight than PC-connected ones. For example, Oculus Go weighs about 470 grams, while Valve Index is about 800 grams. Although the weight is evenly distributed, some may find Index too heavy.

Adjustments

People are different, so are their personal specs. If the headset is meant to be used by many people (for example, it is a stationary hospital setup), it should have an opportunity to be adjusted for every patient separately. 

Most headsets can be fitted for the user with the help of head straps or tightening knobs. In a matter of seconds, a helmet can be adjusted to sit on the head firmly, but not too tight. The fit is very important as it contributes to the level of immersion into a VR experience: if the headset doesn’t sit properly, the light coming from underneath, as well as wrong lense-to-eye distance and a fiddling device can ruin the impression. Oculus Quest, for example, can be upgraded with the Quest Deluxe Strap that adds more support and helps to distribute the weight even better.

Lenses

The same goes for lenses. The level of immersion highly depends on how well it suits the eyes of users. The interpupillary distance (IPD) is a key parameter for a pleasant and effective VR therapy experience. If the IPD of the user doesn’t coincide with the one provided by the device, the person may experience blur, eyestrain, and motion sickness. 

VR headsets come with two types of lenses: fixed and adjustable. Fixed ones are set with a non-changeable parameter, e.g. 64 mm. Adjustable, obviously, can be moved in a given rage to find the best configuration for every user. 

For example, HTC Vive and Oculus Quest both have a manual slider to move the lenses in a range from 58 to 72 mm, which is enough to cover the needs of many. Oculus Rift and its newest S version do not have manual control but use software to make some adjustments. It is clear, however, that software only is not enough to find that perfect spot.

Another thing to consider is prescription glasses. It would be a great idea to pay attention to whether the headset is compatible with usual glasses. HTC Vive, for example, has enough space to fit over glasses. It is achieved with changing the distance from eyes to lenses (eye-relief adjustments that also contributes to the user experience), while for Oculus and Valve Index one can buy prescription lens adapters.  Samsung Gear VR is not recommended by the manufacturer to be used with glasses so as not to scratch the lenses. As an option, it is possible to set the device on for optical infinity. Many say it is enough for a comfortable experience even without glasses.

Hygiene

As the headset you choose is most likely to be used by many people, it should have removable and cleanable face pads. Sweat is an unpleasant yet common effect of wearing a VR device and you want to make sure it is clean and safe after every use. You can find options of VR covers and choose the one easiest to clean and see how they differ in terms of comfort. It’s also a good idea to have a supply of extra face pads, so you don’t have to wait while the only one you own dries out.

Ease of use

Your application is not a gaming one; it is meant to help people with their health. So it is very likely that many of the patients have never tried VR before or have given it only one or two chances. According to GlobalWebIndex, the older people are, the fewer of them tried VR: from 35% of users in the age range 16-34 to 6% for the 55-64 group.

When choosing a device, pay attention to how easy it is operated, how complicated or, vice versa, intuitive is the menu or the setup. VR experience you want to provide shouldn’t be overwhelming, so people remember not the device, but the experience. 

In case your app is designed for home use, it is even more important — the patient should be able to start their session in minutes without a frustrating process of setting everything up.

Mobile devices are good if a session is set up by clients themselves, but may be a little fussy. The client needs to install an app on the phone and to set a phone in the device. So Google Daydream or Samsung Gear VR will be great if you don’t need too much of graphics or aim at a more tech-friendly audience.

Standalone devices is a golden middle — while providing decent quality, they are relatively easy to use and can be applied for home therapy. Among standalone HMDs, there are such options as Oculus Go and Quest, HTC Vive Focus or Lenovo Mirage Solo.

Tethered (PC-connected) devices are the most complicated yet the most powerful. Not the best choice if the patient needs to operate the session themselves but works great if it is an assisted therapy session in hospital. These are HTC Vive and Vive Pro, Pimax, Valve Index and other.

The user checklist

Adjustable straps

Comfortable fit

Adjustable IPD and eye-to-lense distance

Replaceable face pads

Prescription glasses compatibility

Ease/complexity of use

The environment

Another point of consideration is where and how the application will be used.

In hospital or at home

If the application you develop is designed to be used by patients only with a therapist supervisor, you may want to use a more quality but less mobile tethered device. Once set in a designated location, it will stay there waiting for the next patient to come. 

If you want the user to be able to use it at home or the device may need to be moved around the hospital, your best choice is a standalone or a mobile device. Additionally, such devices are easier to use and shouldn’t intimidate even the most novice VR users.

A place to store

With a PC-connected headset, you should also consider if there will be enough space for all the elements of the set: a computer, a device, controllers, sensors. Will there be an opportunity for a VR only dedicated room in a hospital? If you are not sure it will be possible, maybe think of a simpler all-in-one version. 

If your application is supposed to be used by many at the same time, you should beforehand think of how and where you can store all the devices. Bear in mind, that even though VR hardware does not need specific storage conditions, they are still technically complicated devices that should be handled with care. You wouldn’t keep your computer in a damp cellar, wouldn’t you?

The environment checklist

At home or in hospital

Portable or stationary

Dedicated VR space

Single or multiple users

Storage conditions

The technology

Within multiple options on the market today, one can choose from the simplest to the most advanced HMDs, each of which offers a whole range of different functions.

Tethered vs standalone vs mobile

This criterion has been mentioned in the article a couple of times, so probably you already know which can be your choice. But let’s discuss.

Tethered headsets are the most powerful ones on the market. They can deliver outstanding image quality, allow motion tracking (the user can walk around a dedicated space), have more elaborate controllers. On the other hand, to reveal the full potential of a PC-connected VR set, you will need a powerful PC to connect it to. More disadvantages include a high price, wires, and complicated setup. Among the best headsets today we can name HTC Vive Pro, Oculus Rift S, Valve Index. 

Standalone headsets is a midpoint that tries to strike a balance between quality, price, and ease of use. It doesn’t always work, but there are very good options. Standalone HMDs are all-in-one devices that do not require any connections, which is both an advantage (no wires, easier setup) and a disadvantage (lower quality, less tracking options). Standalone VR headsets are good when you need a portable device, decent graphics quality, and a midrange price. If you like this option, take a look at HTC Vive Focus, Oculus Go or Oculus Quest. 

Mobile headsets are the cheapest ones and, expectedly, the simplest. They work on the basis of a smartphone. Such kind of a device is perfect when you want to get acquainted with VR or you expect multiple people use it at the same time as it will be cheaper. Unfortunately, mobile headsets have little to no controllers options and are mostly used for watch-only experiences. Popular mobile headsets are Google Cardboard, Google Daydream, Samsung Gear VR.

Cost

As already said, different configurations have different price level. So if you want to use a top-notch hi-end VR device, ask yourself if you are ready to pay around eight hundred dollars per item. 

The price range is insane: from 15 dollars for Google Cardboard up to a thousand for Valve Index. So depending on how many devices you need, how much of a quality you expect, and how elaborate the controllers you want to be you can make your choice. 

Besides the device itself, take into account hidden cost: VR headsets can have a whole set of additional devices and things that you may need: controllers, base stations, a PC, a windmill, travel cases, and so on.

Controllers and sensors

Again, it depends on the content you have in your mental health VR application: whether the patient interacts with the environment, whether they need to walk around or can sit throughout the session, whether detailed tracking data is important for the app performance. 

For example, if it is a pain distraction therapy application, you may need a simple one-hand controller to interact with some of the elements. If it is a VR meditation app, you probably don’t want to distract your users from the meditation process, so the controller is not necessary. A rehabilitation application is likely to require a full set of sensors, or even treadmills, so that the patient can move around, and, accordingly, a powerful headset. 

One of the parameter to look at is degree of freedom (DoF): the number of ways the object can move in space. In terms of VR, there are usually 3Dof and 6DoF features implemented in headsets and controllers.

3DoF means that the device can tack rotational movements, like tilting or turning the head. It is usually applied in mobile or standalone devices, like Google Daydream or Oculus Go.

6DoF devices can track rotation and position of the object so the user can move every way. It is exactly what more hi-end PC-connected devices such as HTC Vive or Valve Index. However, the newest generations of standalone HMDs can have this feature implemented as well (Oculus Quest, Lenovo Mirage Solo), using front-facing cameras.

Quality of graphics

It was already said that the type of the headset has a direct correlation with the image quality. Today headsets have a resolution range from a smartphone capacity up to 4K. Google Daydream or Samsung Gear VR, that use a smartphone to run an app, obviously can’t provide more quality than the smartphone you install in it. And it’s ok if you don’t need the user to see every little leaf on a virtual tree. For more copmlex solutions there are headsets with 2K resolution (HTC Vive), 4K (HP Reverb), 5K (Pimax 5K Plus). Here it is necessary to find a balance between how high-quality and how complex you want the experience to be. But bear in mind, that the higher resolution you use, the more quality your application models should have.

The technology checklist

Smartphone/PC-powered, standalone

Level of interactivity

Price

Quality of graphics


To bring it all together, here is a list of questions you should ask yourself when you choose a device for your VR for mental health application:

  • How many people will use the app at the same time?
  • Where will the session take place: on-site or at home?
  • Should a VR set up be portable?
  • Is there any interaction with the content?
  • If yes, how complicated is it? What body parts are involved and what controllers are required?
  • Does the experience require movement, or does the patient sit still?
  • Is it a guided VR experience or patients use it themselves?
  • How quality should the graphics be?
  • How much are you ready to pay for the hardware?

After you answer these questions, you will already have at least an idea of the setup you need. If you forward these answers to the development team, they will help you make a final decision. 

Still not sure? Contact us and we will guide and consult you about your VR application.

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