Virtual reality technology has yet to reach half of its full potential, but the things that developers have been able to do with it so far are still immensely impressive. Beyond gaming and fun immersive experiences, VR has been used for various medical applications including surgical training, and now it is also being used in new clinical trials as a form of therapy for patients who suffer from acrophobia: the fear of heights.
According to Science News, the trials involved asking patients with a fear of heights to don a VR headset and headphones, while grabbing controllers to explore a simulation, guided by animated avatars instead of real-world therapists. The experience involves ascending a 10-story building and performing various tasks of increasing difficulty, including rescuing a kitty from a tree, standing at the edge of a platform as a safety barrier gets further and further away, and standing on a moving platform as it moves through the air. In a report published online in Lancet Psychiatry, the team conducting the trials said that participants who used the VR program reported having less fear after two weeks.
That would be impressive on its own, but the researchers also reported that 90 percent of the participants met the "diagnostic criteria for acrophobia," the average amount of time that the participants in the study had lived with a fear of heights was 30 years, and none of them were receiving other forms of treatments for the phobia.
Image credit: Oxford VR
"What I'm noticing is that in day-to-day life I'm much less averse to edges, and steps, and heights, and I'm noticing in myself that when I'm doing the VR and outside I'm able to say 'Hello' to the edge instead of bracing against it and backing up," one person who participated in the trial told the researchers. "I feel as if I'm making enormous progress, and feel very happy with what I've gained."
While the results of the VR experiment are promising, the team still has to compare their findings to more traditional forms of treatment with trained therapists. VR therapy would be a much more affordable/accessible solution, but there is not enough data to suggest that it would be effective for a large population suffering from acrophobia. Could VR therapy work for treatment of other fears? Or for more complicated mental health issues? We don't know yet, but the possibility is exciting. We look forward to future trials designed specifically to answer those questions.