Virtual reality has a great many applications in the entertainment space, from video games to sports broadcasting. The technology is naturally appealing to many for its ability to remove the user from the real world and transport them to an entirely new place. For some, though, escaping from reality is more than just entertainment. Virtual reality is finding incredible uses in the fields of psychology and therapy, as well.
Virtual reality therapy isn’t a new idea, and the concept far predates the modern easy availability of head-mounted displays. The concept was pioneered in 1992 in the doctoral dissertation of Dr. Max North, a computer scientist. His thesis was that virtual reality was an ideal, safe place to administer psychotherapy through exposure to various phobias and triggers.
Dr. North’s ideas found acceptance with the US Army, which awarded him with a grant to pursue his research. Today, virtual reality is used in the treatment of PTSD and related anxiety disorders. In recent years, civilian industry has picked up on the movement, and offers a number of treatments and therapies for phobias, disorders, and even developmental disabilities such as autism.
The Virtual Reality Medical Center (VRMC) specializes in VR exposure therapy, particularly in the treatment of fear of flying. The center utilizes a real, repurposed commercial airliner seat. Patients undergoing psychotherapy are belted into the seat and equipped with a head-mounted display, at which point they are taken through the entire experience of a flight, from take-off to safe landing.
VRMC leverages physical elements in the simulation as well as sophisticated graphics and motion-tracking. The airliner seat is equipped with speakers and gimbals, allowing it to accurately give the feeling of engine rumble, storms, and turbulence. Over the course of multiple sessions, patients progress from simply sitting in a virtual airplane, to waiting for takeoff on a delayed flight, to the flight itself. The psychologist can control elements like inclement weather and engine problems in real-time, allowing them to tailor the experience to the individual needs of the patient.
The center also utilizes a proprietary monitoring device that tracks the patient’s heart rate, EEG, ECG, and skin temperature. This allows doctors to maintain awareness of the patient’s stress level during therapy so that they can add or remove stressors during the treatment.
Today, the Dr. North’s research is being put into practice at Bravemind facilities around the country. Bravemind is an umbrella term encompassing all ongoing government-sponsored research into the treatment of PTSD using virtual reality technology. Bravemind work is being done at a number of hospitals and universities, all receiving funding from the United States Army Simulation and Training Technology Center (USASTCC).
One early project undertaken by Bravemind researchers was known as Virtual Iraq. Begun in 2007, the project was intended to aid returning veterans process and deal with wartime trauma. Patients were outfitted with a head-mounted display and virtually sent back to Fallujah or other Middle East areas of conflict. The soldiers physically hold a rifle or other weapon, and are taken through a simulation that includes booming explosions, rumbling engines, and even smoke and dust vented into the treatment room.
Bravemind is considered a success, and has been helpful as part of a psychotherapy plans to help veterans process their experiences, reduce panic attacks, and even be able to sleep without medication, sometimes for the first time in years.
As documented in PLOS ONE, a general scientific journal, neuroscience researchers at Newcastle University conducted a study into virtual reality therapy for autistic children. The study was performed with the cooperation of nine children between the ages of 7-13 who had been diagnosed with high-functioning autism.
The specific symptoms suffered by the children included generalized anxiety disorder, as well as anxieties triggered by social situations, public speaking, grocery shopping, and riding public transportation.
Virtual reality allowed the researchers to expose each child to their psychological triggers in a safe, controlled manner. By utilizing a rudimentary VR Cave called the Blue Room, the psychology of the children’s’ disorders could be explored in collaboration with therapists.
The room was used to simulate standing in front of a classroom, a bus driver, or other real-world elements that would cause anxiety in the children. The researchers could stand with the child as they faced their fears, control the intensity of the experience, or end it at any time if the stress became too much.
The study was quite successful, with 8 out of 9 participants scoring significantly better in tests to evaluate their handling of stress and anxiety. More research is already underway into this exciting utilization of virtual reality in psychotherapy.
Outside of the research lab, a number of virtual reality psychological therapies are already available on the market. One of the most well-regarded firms in this space is Virtually Better, which offers treatments for PTSD, phobias, stress management, substance abuse, and more.
Targeted at psychotherapy practices but available for sale to the public, Virtually Better offers solutions ranging from smartphone apps for use with mobile-based head-mounted displays, to elaborate virtual simulations that include the use of physical props.
One of the firm’s most popular offerings is Calm Craft, which teaches calm breathing to the user as they enjoy immersion in a virtual underwater realm. These techniques are extended to the Alcohol and Tobacco simulation, which is built to give users the self-control to “Just Say No” to a drink or cigarette.
On the high end, Virtually Better is also participant in Bravemind research, and provides equipment to a number of institutions that provide PTSD treatment under the program.
The Human Interface Technology Laboratory at the University of Washington uses virtual reality in the treatment of a very common disorder: Arachnophobia.
The program is called SpiderWorld, and is as terrifyingly effective as it sounds. Patients are equipped with a head-mounted display and move through a virtual environment infested with spiders and other creepy-crawlies. The therapy plan progresses over 12 sessions, each one containing more spiders than the last. The spiders become more active over time as well, ensuring that patients cannot simply look away.
The psychotherapist overseeing treatment can engage in the session as well, by controlling the virtual spiders with a mouse and keyboard. The lab has even created a physical spider prop that is wired into the simulation. The toy and headset use sensors to maintain positional awareness of each other, meaning the physical positioning of the spider is mirrored in the virtual world.
In other words, a therapist can hold the toy spider in front of the patient’s face, and the patient will see a realistic spider in their display. The patient is encouraged to reach out and touch the spider in the simulation, and their hand will meet the physical toy, creating a perfect (and perfectly frightening) illusion).
SpiderWorld is an ongoing project, and has been highly effective for countless patients. It and other similar projects are excellent predictors of the importance of virtual reality to mental health and therapy. It seems likely that a head-mounted display will become a fixture in the psychologist’s office in years to come.