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This dentist's office is a beach, thanks to new virtual reality for patients

Patients who once dreaded sitting in the chair at Dr. Mark Olson's dentistry office in Newport Beach may no longer want to get out.

In fact, they might find themselves lounging on the beach in a tranquil virtual reality.

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About two months ago, Olson began having his patients wear a goggle-like gadget called the Samsung Gear VR powered by Oculus.

On one side, the lightweight device has two lenses the wearer can look through. On the other side is a slot to insert a Samsung smartphone.

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Patients wearing the headset can see moving images, such as a beach or sunset scene, displayed on the phone screen.

Olson's office offers medication to sedate those who feel anxious in the chair, but he says that method can make some patients nauseated.

"It's no secret that everyone complains about going to the dentist," Olson said with a laugh. "This [virtual reality device] is a way to distract people and use the power of mind instead of pharmaceuticals."

As long as the device is in an upright position while patients are wearing it, it's easy for a dentist to move around to clean their teeth, Olson said.

"When I slipped on the headset, I nearly completely forgot that I was at the dentist, and that changed the entire experience," longtime patient Bonnie Holley said in a statement. "I actually almost wanted to stay longer in the chair after the procedure was done just to have some extra 'me' time."

The headset — developed by Samsung Electronics and Menlo Park-based technology company Oculus — was released last year. It costs about $600.

Olson said he first heard of the gear from a friend in Los Angeles who helps develop virtual reality software. He thought about how such a device could help apprehensive patients in his office.

"We wanted a service that would really get people excited," Olson said. "Now patients can wear this and geek out for 40 minutes or they can just sit and stare at the ceiling. It's fun to watch them try it on and see them put their hands out and go 'Whoa!'"

Patients may feel uneasy about going to the dentist for many reasons, including fear of pain and the feeling of a loss of control while in the chair, according to Edmond Hewlett, a professor at the UCLA School of Dentistry.

"The dentist is working in the mouth, which is a very intimate part of the body that we're just wired to be very protective of," Hewlett said. "Patients absolutely undergo a high amount of anxiety and stress, and distractions have been shown to help … like listening to music or having the TV on."

Hewlett, a dentist for more than 30 years, said virtual reality likely will become an effective method of distracting patients.

"Unlike TV and music, it's more immersive and it does literally block out any other visual stimuli," he said. "It would not surprise me at all if many individuals did experience a reduction in anxiety in this type of distraction."

Olson's office, at 1617 Westcliff Drive, also plans to look into guided meditation methods to help soothe patients.

Twitter: @AlexandraChan10

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