MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

I'm Melissa Block.

And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

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BLOCK: And we begin with a story of medical technology. Pain associated with burn injuries is considered some of the most severe and challenging to treat, and hundreds of soldiers are returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with extensive burns. An Army hospital in Texas is experimenting with a virtual reality program to help alleviate some of that pain. The program, known as SnowWorld, was developed by researchers at the University of Washington.

Patricia Murphy of member station KUOW reports.

PATRICIA MURPHY: About a year ago, Sergeant Oscar Liberetto was with his unit in Iraq when an IED detonated near the Humvee he was riding in. The 23-year-old suffered severe burns on his left arm and hand. He was the only survivor from his group of five.

Sergeant OSCAR LIBERETTO (U.S. Army): It was really painful. Sometimes I didn't think that I was going to make it, but I don't know.

MURPHY: Liberetto is one of a dozen military burn patients being treated at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, who participated in the study using SnowWorld. It works, essentially, through distraction. By wearing high-tech goggles with a wide field of vision, SnowWorld helps patients block the unpleasant view of their wounds, their charred skin, allowing them to navigate an icy canyon instead.

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MURPHY: Push a button, and throw a snowball at a giant penguin. Pelt a mammoth, and it will trumpet angrily.

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MURPHY: All to the soothing sounds of Paul Simon.

(Soundbite of song, "Call Me Al")

Mr. PAUL SIMON (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) A man walks down the street, he says, why am I soft in the middle now? Why am I soft in the middle now?

MURPHY: I know. Paul Simon? Turns out, he's a friend of one of the developers. Sergeant Liberetto says SnowWorld made a big difference for him.

Sgt. LIBERETTO: I think the environment makes you feel like you're at peace.

MURPHY: University of Washington researcher Hunter Hoffman says his work with combat burns, that tend to cover up to 80 percent of the body, has been promising.

Mr. HUNTER HOFFMAN (Cognitive Psychologist, Memory Expert): What was very encouraging is the ones who needed it the most were the ones who benefited the most. So the patients that were in the most pain are the ones that showed the most pain reduction from SnowWorld.

MURPHY: In a handful of civilian hospitals where this technology is already in use, it's a virtual reality helmet that the patient wears to experience the snowy distraction. But combat burn victims are often too injured to wear the helmet. Hoffman's team redesigned the VR unit as a pair of goggles and a joystick. Dr. Christopher Maani is the chief of anesthesia at Brooke Army Medical Center. He says the treatment has reduced stress for nurses, as their patients are more comfortable. And then there's the appreciation from soldiers' family members, who see a big difference in the emotional well-being of their loved ones.

Dr. CHRISTOPHER MAANI (Chief Of Anesthesia, Brooke Army Medical Center): You know, you can be stopped in the hallways, and a hug is a very simple thing, but it means so much. Those are the true rewards. It really is making a difference, and it really is helping our patients and their families.

MURPHY: The Army is also researching the use of virtual reality for treatment of PTSD.

For NPR News, I'm Patricia Murphy in Seattle.

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