USC student looks to virtual reality to alleviate young patients’ fears of MRI scans

Magnetic resonance imaging creates fear among children since it can make sounds up to 120 decibels, which is equivalent to the loudness of an ambulance siren.

USC student Max Orozco, who is pursuing his master’s degree at the Iovine and Young Academy, decided to turn to virtual reality to help solve the fear that many children face while undergoing magnetic resonance imaging scans.

The company he co-founded, Lumuem, which focuses on utilizing cutting-edge technology to improve people’s wellbeing, developed the VR MRI to better young patients’ experiences through mock medical imaging scans.

According to Orozco, the prototype creates a child-friendly experience for kids to learn what an MRI is and how it functions. He described that users would see a teddy bear welcoming them and walking them through the MRI scan procedures and overall experience.

“VR experience emerges you in that space, so you can see the scanner, you can see what the room would look like, you can [hear] the sounds,” Orzco said. “By stimulating the environment and the procedure itself, it's much more than just a learning experience. You're getting first-hand experience of [MRI].”

He also explained that VR MRI is different from other mock MRI tools on the market due to its portability, since most competitors have products that are too large for hospitals, and immersive reality.

“[Some mock scanners] are large models with 10 feet long and five feet wide. It’s like laying a child on a bed and putting them inside,” Orozco said. “[They] really open up access to that same type of interaction to any MRI suite.”

After studying childhood brain development for eight years through MRI techniques, Orozco said he found that children move more frequently during scans due to anxiety and fear.

He attributed factors that increased anxiety among children to the MRI’s loud sounds, huge volume and closed environment. The National Center for Biotechnology Information reported that MRI scans are more likely to cause anxiety among children, since it makes sounds of up to 120 decibels. This amount is equivalent to the loudness of an ambulance siren or thunderclap, according to the Hearing Health Foundation.

“MRI is very intimidating and scary, [because] it can cause claustrophobia not only in children, but also adults,” Orozco said. “The fear of the unknown is much more scary than the procedure itself, so by showing them exactly what an MRI is like helps alleviate that fear for their children.”

He also added that since many children move around during scans due to anxiety, which makes the images hard to read, relieving the stress that young patients fear can help generate more usable data for experts in the medical field.

“I found that a lot of the data that we collected was just unusable, [which is] a waste of money and a waste of time,” Orozco said. “You're subjecting a kid to a scary experience for nothing because it's unusable.”

The Lumeum team started building this virtual reality tool in April 2019 and co-founder Noah Orozco said his cinematic arts background helped him develop the virtual reality experience. Specific aspects included the animations and camera angles.

“In order to capture people’s attention and work as a learning tool, I use a lot of tricks that I learn from film school, [such as] changing the angles that [the teddy bear] is in so that kids can feel more comfortable maintaining eye contact with the character,” Noah Orozco said.

He also added that because it was the first time the team developed VR tools, they faced many obstacles especially when learning about new fields such as gaming.

Lumeum will launch the pilot program in the beginning of 2020 to have children perform MRIs with VR MRI in collaboration with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, according to Dr. Jeffrey Gold, who founded the hospital's pediatric pain management clinic.

“I think [VR MRI] is more affordable, more engaging and more interesting,” Gold said. “You’re not in a mock MRI [but] in one virtually, and I think it’s superior to mock MRI.”

Other than VR MRI, the team has also been working on helping elderly people realize their old hobbies through virtual reality. Max Orozco said the team will explore the ways to utilize emerging technology to “improve the world.”

“Embodiment is when you believe that you’re physically in an additional space. VR has this amazing ability to transport people to other places,” Max Orozco said. “[Lumeum] believe[s] that virtual reality is a new tool to tap into human perceptions and improve health care.”