The latest technology in the world of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) has many potential applications. They range from the next generation of computer games to training surgeons. Recent experiments around ‘virtual reality therapy’ have also demonstrated that the technology shows significant promise in potentially helping to cure the millions of people around the world that suffer from phobias.
An Oxford University study of virtual reality treatment conducted on 100 vertigo sufferers led to what was described as “extraordinarily good results”. The therapy combines a ‘virtual coach’ whose role is as a councillor or therapist talking to phobia sufferers with virtual reality exposure to situations that they would ordinarily be unable to cope with, such as walking over a rope bridge spanning a river canyon or climbing a mountain.
A major bottleneck to the treatment of phobias is a shortage of therapists and councillors able to help sufferers understand the cognitive behaviour behind their instinctive fears. Phobia suffers being able to look at their thoughts in a new, more detached way, while gradually being increasingly exposed to the cause of their phobia is key to overcoming it. However, budget restraints and a shortage of expert therapists means that only those with phobias bad enough to cripple everyday life are able to access therapy on the NHS and often after a long wait.
Many other phobia sufferers whose symptoms are not at the most extreme end of the spectrum still experience significant restrictions as a result of their psychological condition. However, these are not considered severe enough for NHS-funded therapy. Automated VR solutions that combine both a virtual coach with virtual reality exposure to the sufferer’s phobia would, if effective, not only mean severe cases could be treated more quickly but also provide a solution for those who experience phobias on the mid to lower end of the spectrum.
The Oxford University study’s results indicate that VR genuinely does hold the potential to be a highly effective way to treat at least the phobia of vertigo. Two thirds of the patients who underwent the treatment were subsequently considered as no longer having a phobia of heights. The success of the trial has raised hopes that similar treatments may be effective for many other examples of common mental health problems.
The study was led by Daniel Freeman, who commented:
“We know the most effective treatments are active: patients go into the situations they find difficult and practise more helpful ways of thinking and behaving. This is often impractical in face-to-face therapy, but easily done in VR”.
While the technology is unlikely to be an effective solution for all mental health conditions, it does seem to hold promise in the case of phobias.