Safely Dive Into Your Fears with Virtual Reality

What makes you afraid? Not like jump-scares in movies or the rush of a roller-coaster, but what are your legitimate fears that qualify as phobias? Spiders? Clowns? Blood? Flying? Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin are experimenting with exposure therapy in virtual reality to help people manage their fears. For some phobias, like arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, this seems like a perfect fit. If you are certain that you are safely in a spider-free laboratory wearing a VR headset, and you see a giant spider crawling across your field of vision, the fear may be more manageable than being asked to put your hand into a populated spider tank.

After the experimental therapy, participants were asked to take the spider tank challenge. Subjects who were not shown VR spiders were less enthusiastic about keeping their hands in the tank. This is not definitive proof, but it is a promising start.

High-end VR equipment and homemade rigs are in the budget for many gamers and hackers, and our archives are an indication of how much the cutting-edge crowd loves immersive VR. We have been hacking 360 recording for nearly a decade, long before 360 cameras took their niche in the consumer market. Maybe when this concept is proven out a bit more, implementations will start appearing in our tip lines with hackers who helped their friends get over their fears.

Via IEEE Spectrum.

Photo by Wokandapix.

18 thoughts on “Safely Dive Into Your Fears with Virtual Reality

  1. Therapeutic use of VR is almost as old as VR itself – or at least half-way practical implementations of it. The oldest published material I know of is a paper titled “Effectiveness of Computer-Generated (Virtual Reality) Graded Exposure in the Treatment of Acrophobia”, which was printed in the American Journal of Psychiatry in April 1995.

    That research was the work of a team led by computer scientist Max North and clinical psychologist Barbara Rothbaum. Both (I think) are still actively working in the field.

    Now that I think about it, there is one older paper – a report on the use VR to simulate vertigo-inducing settings to treat people who were afraid of heights. It was published by a doctor called Ralph Lamson in a weird “cyber-journal” called the “Arachnet Electronic Journal on Virtual Culture” (which sounds like something from a William Gibson novel) a few months before North and Rothbaum.

    The paper was just a brief write up of the technique, rather than a test of it, but it was enough for Lamson to secure a patent for “Virtual Reality Immersion Theory for treating psychological, psychiatric, medical, educational, and self-help problems”. Lamson then spent most of the next decade or two suing anyone who tried to do work in this field. I suspect the re-emergence of VR therapy as an idea might have something to do with him getting too old or broke to keep pestering people.

    1. Yes, there are! The human brain is a funny thing though. While some fears, such as spiders are best addressed head-on others, like female nudity can only be treated through an overload of the opposite experience. Expect a package in the mail shortly from Brian Benchoff containing you very own Google Cardboard and an SD card with a very special video.

  2. “Spiders? Clowns? Blood? Flying?”

    Eight legged Dracula in a clown suit blocking the isle seat in my row on the plane.
    It stems from a childhood accident, as is common where I grew up.

  3. I thought I was afraid of heights.

    After thinking about it, I realized what I was really afraid of was falling.

    After thinking about it some more, I realized what I was really, truly afraid of–landing.

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