If exploring the winter wonderland scene below strikes you as a cool idea, imagine a burn patient's response to this virtual reality program. Researchers hope that high-tech distraction can do for burn victims what it's done for volunteers who have tested the program: reduce pain-related activity in the brain -- as shown in the cutaway at right, for example -- to the less painful level seen at far right.

The interactive SnowWorld program was developed by the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Lab to take burn patients' minds off their pain during treatment, said Hunter Hoffman, who directs the lab's Virtual Reality Analgesia Research Center. That pain, he said, is "almost like getting burned again."

To test SnowWorld, eight healthy study participants spent two six-minute sessions wearing a virtual reality helmet. In one, the helmet's goggle-like screens projected icy canyons that participants wandered while lobbing virtual snowballs at virtual penguins. In the other, they saw only a black cross on a white screen. Meanwhile, a computerized heat lamp delivered pulses of painful heat stimulation to the participants' feet. Images published in June's NeuroReport, a peer-reviewed journal, show that pain centers were 50 to 97 percent less active while the participants were in SnowWorld than when they were viewing the cross.

-- Matt McMillen