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.
Commercially Available Treatments
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.