I’m walking across town to Samsung 837, a tech playground of sorts that on this night is showcasing how technology can be used to battle phobias. I’ve signed up to use Samsung Gear VR powered by Oculus to help me face my fear of heights. As I get closer to the venue, I feel a knot in my stomach just below my ribs, and I wonder why I agreed to this. But I know why. I think of myself as a strong, unstoppable superwoman. But my kryptonite is heights.
I think about how this fear has gotten in my way. As a kid, my dad’s office was in a skyscraper with floor-to-ceiling windows. It looked like I could fall into the clouds, so visits became scary instead of fun. Or there was the time I visited Paris’ Eiffel Tower as a student in high school. Some preppy chick with bangs kick-started my personal hell when she chirped, “Let’s walk up!” As I ascended the hundreds of metal steps, I felt like I was climbing a satanic fire escape. My heart pounded, and sounds came to me like I was underwater. I was shaking so hard I could not talk. I wanted to turn back, but the pushy river of tourists made it impossible.
Since then, I’ve avoided all kinds of places that other people love — the Grand Canyon, mountain hikes, ski lifts. Everyday life still jangles my nerves. I don’t like bridges or balconies. Rooftop parties? You’ll find me smack in the middle, away from the edge, holding my drink too tight.
For me, the fear of heights is really a fear of falling, or worse, jumping. I’m afraid that the quiet desire to fling myself earthward will take over if given the chance. I’ve thought about facing my fear with a skydive or bungee jump, but really … that’s not going to happen. Not ever. Which is how I found myself at Samsung 837. Doing it the VR way proved to be cheaper and safer, with no chance of breaking my bones.
There are three demos at the event — one for people with a fear of public speaking, one for those with a fear of boats and one for the likes of me.
When it’s my turn, I turn to the tech guy helping me with the giant pair of goggles.
“I’m actually really scared. You’ll be right there? Right there?”
And like a guardian angel, he says: “You got this. I’m here.”
I have no idea what’s about to happen. Will I tumble over a waterfall? Get virtually shoved off a cliff? I’ve never played video games, so maybe it’s just going to be dumb.
Jessica Vitkus is aided by her techie “guardian angel,” who helps guide her through her fear of heights using VR.
SOURCE BRISCOE SAVOY FOR OZY
My goggles engage. I see a drop-down menu with three locations from which to choose. I pick the suspension bridge, and boom: I’m standing high up (really high up) at the edge of a rocky cliff overlooking the sea, and I can appreciate that it’s gorgeous. I can even hear the breeze and the waves lapping the rock below. When I turn my head, I see even more. As I adjust the focus knob, my hands start shaking.
While intellectually I know that I’m standing safely on a platform, my body still reacts like I’m up high. This is the genius part: I get to feel all the familiar feelings, and practice dealing.
“This is really cool. I don’t like it,” I tell my tech-savvy angel, and both statements are true. Then I seem to float magically across the very narrow suspension bridge. I’m ready for more. I go back to the main menu and up the level of difficulty. I decide to go heli-skiing.
Jessica was able to soar to heights that normally make her tremble — and feel normal doing it.
SOURCE BRISCOE SAVOY FOR OZY
I’m flying over snow-covered mountains on a clear day — the picture is as sharp as can be, since the setting is real (filmed with a 360-degree camera). I can even see the shiny underbelly of the helicopter I’m meant to be hanging out of. And still, I’m ready for more. I transport myself to the final location: a wooden bridge that a bungee jumper might leap from. I can even hear the water rushing below me. I’m startled to realize that my body feels … normal. My heart rate is down, and I’m no longer sweating or trembling. I’ve never felt the sensation of being up high, enjoying the view. But I’m feeling it now, and I’m not freaking out.