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Treating phobias with Virtual Reality

A virtual aircraft interior in the Reality Cube
A virtual aircraft interior in the Reality Cube

Virtual Therapy

Virtual Reality (VR) can be a tool in treating anxiety disorders such as acrophobia, agoraphobia, fear of flying, eating disorders, etc. Patients are put in a virtual world related to their specific phobia, e.g. an airplane, a high building, spiders, etc. This form of therapy is known as Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET).

Fear of heights, in the Reality Cube
Fear of heights, in the Reality Cube

Example: fear of heights

For an example of the use of Virtual Reality in the treatment of fear of heights, watch this film.

The film shows a subject immersed in a virtual world (the engine room of a large ship) in the Reality Cube. As the subject steps forward and looks over the virtual railing, the 3D perspective is continuously updated based on the position of the user's head. This makes the user feel like he is really looking over a railing and into the abyss below.

Virtual spider in the Reality Cube
Virtual spider in the Reality Cube

Virtual or real?

As the patient knows that the presented 3D world is 'only' virtual, it will be easier for him or her to enter the therapy. They prefer to face a virtual spider before having to deal with 'the real thing'.

Nevertheless, the feeling of presence that an immersive VR setup (like the Reality Cube) gives triggers the anxiety reaction. Research shows that exposure to the feared situation through VRET diminishes the phobic response. It is amazing how effective VR can be in this application.

A virtual dog in the Reality Cube
A virtual dog in the Reality Cube

Influence

The simulated environment can be controlled very precisely by the therapist, for example by adjusting the height of a building (when treating fear of heights), changing the number of people in a room (when treating social phobias), etc. This is also useful for presenting exactly the same situation to multiple patients, for example to study the effectiveness of the therapy.

Last modified:02 October 2015 10.22 p.m.
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