Background: A three-dimensional virtual world (3DVW) is a computer-simulated electronic 3D virtual environment that users can explore, inhabit, communicate, and interact with via avatars, which are graphical representations of the users. Since the early 2000s, 3DVWs have emerged as a technology that has much to offer the health care sector.
Objective: The purpose of this study was to characterize different application areas of various 3DVWs in health and medical context and categorize them into meaningful categories.
Methods: This study employs a systematic literature review on the application areas of 3DVWs in health care. Our search resulted in 62 papers from five top-ranking scientific databases published from 1990 to 2013 that describe the use of 3DVWs for health care specific purposes. We noted a growth in the number of academic studies on the topic since 2006.
Results: We found a wide range of application areas for 3DVWs in health care and classified them into the following six categories: academic education, professional education, treatment, evaluation, lifestyle, and modeling. The education category, including professional and academic education, contains the largest number of papers (n=34), of which 23 are related to the academic education category and 11 to the professional education category. Nine papers are allocated to treatment category, and 8 papers have contents related to evaluation. In 4 of the papers, the authors used 3DVWs for modeling, and 3 papers targeted lifestyle purposes. The results indicate that most of the research to date has focused on education in health care. We also found that most studies were undertaken in just two countries, the United States and the United Kingdom.
Conclusions: 3D virtual worlds present several innovative ways to carry out a wide variety of health-related activities. The big picture of application areas of 3DVWs presented in this review could be of value and offer insights to both the health care community and researchers.
Keywords: 3D virtual worlds; 3DVW; health care.