Professionals who use their voices to make a living are intensely aware of the problems that tired and overstressed vocal cords can cause. The healing process includes learning proper use of the voice and practice, practice, practice.
But for the recuperating preacher or teacher, how are those repeated practice sessions possible without turning an entire congregation or classroom into one's captive audience? Enter modern technology with its ability to simulate almost any real-life setting that can be imagined.
A system that was originally developed to help cure people who suffer from a paralyzing dread of public speaking now has been introduced into the voice therapy program at the Emory Voice Center. A customized Virtual Reality therapy using programs portraying small and large meeting environments has been developed by Virtually Better, Inc. to give patients the opportunity to practice in a realistic setting while still in the environment of the therapy room.
Voice therapy, not unlike any other type of therapy, is conducted in a step-by-step fashion: when one skill is learned, then another more difficult skill is introduced. The difference is that once the patient is ready to practice, he or she needs an audience. That aspect of the therapy is not always accessible, practical, or desirable for either the therapist or the patient.
"Many of my patients are performers, attorneys, politicians, schoolteachers, or ministers," said Edie Hapner, PhD, assistant professor of otolaryngology and voice therapist at the Emory Voice Center. "Each day with voice impairment becomes a potential detriment to their careers, their clients, their students, their parishioners. This new technology gives them the opportunity to practice newly learned skills in front of an audience in the convenient and safe environment of the lab, with the therapist close by for immediate feedback."
Each new patient who comes into the Voice Center is evaluated for the source of his or her voice problems. Those problems can be caused by a variety of reasons -- lesions, aging, hormonal changes, or overuse of the vocal cords. Once a diagnosis has been reached, a program is then developed to overcome the problem and to teach efficient use of the voice. Most programs range from 4-6 sessions depending on each patient's personal needs and schedule. Once that portion of the program is accomplished, the next step is to use those newly developed skills. This part of the treatment is done in front of a live audience when possible, but often the therapist is not able to observe the patient in a real-life setting. The virtual reality environment is a feasible alternative.
"We want our patients to be treated and released back to their careers as soon as possible," says Michael M. Johns, III, MD, director of the Emory Voice Center and assistant professor of otolaryngology. "When I realized that we had this technology right here at Emory, it was obvious that we could put it to good use by bringing the audience to the patient. Even though the virtual audience is not real, the patients are completely immersed and seem to have the same sense of challenge."
In the virtual setting, the patient wears a VR helmet with a screen in front of their eyes on which the simulated environment is projected. The illusion is so convincing that patients are able to stand at a "podium" and make a speech to a large or small audience, projecting PowerPoint slides that they might use in an actual presentation.
"This is a real-time system that we use to obtain insight into 'real-life' voice use," said Dr. Hapner. "The patient becomes immersed in the environment, forgets that they are in a therapy room, and allows the therapist to observe their actual speech behaviors and voice skills in a totally realistic setting."