Virtual Reality is Becoming a Reality: A clinical application of VR

March of 2014 was a memorable month when Facebook bought Oculus Rift, a virtual reality (VR) headset that lets users experience the virtual world literally in first person view. The Oculus Rift was bought for a whopping 2 billion dollars. Why? Because there are countless non-entertainment applications besides gaming and dating simulations that have been, or would be, groundbreaking in their respective fields. For instance, VR has been clinically used for decades to treat patients with phobias.

Palmer Luckey, creator of Oculus, tries on an Oculus development kit (Image: Palmer Luckey wearing Oculus Rift DK1 at SVVR 2014. Wikimedia Commons).

Conventionally, one of the popular methods of treating phobias is through an exposure therapy, otherwise known as a systematic desensitization. As the names suggest, the idea of this treatment is to expose the patient to his/her fear periodically with increasing intensity until the patient adapts and is no longer phobic.

So how exactly is VR useful in exposure therapies? Let’s imagine ourselves in the shoes of a therapist or a doctor trying to design a treatment procedure for a phobic patient.

Obviously, some phobias would be easy to recreate. For example, arachnophobia is a fear of spiders. Patients with arachnophobia would be asked to look at and touch real spiders, which are easy enough to obtain.

A hypothetical high level exposure for patients with arachnophobia (Image: Arachnophobia100. Wikimedia Commons).

On the other hand, some phobias would be difficult, economically unfavourable, or downright impossible to recreate. For example, deipnophobia is a fear of dinner parties and dinner conversations. It would be highly inconvenient for the doctors to find or throw a dinner party every week for this patient.

Therefore, designing a virtual world would open new possibilities for patients such as these. Using a VR console, patients would be able to experience any level of exposure intensities, every aspect under control by the conductor of the VR.

YouTube Preview Image

(Video: Courtesy of Macquarie University)

You may be wondering ‘exactly how effective is a VR therapy?’ If you guessed that it is not as effective as a standard exposure therapy, guess again! Here is a famous research published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology which tested on patients with a fear of flight. The research team found that the patients who were treated with VR exposure had the same positive results as the patients who were treated with standard exposure as compared to those who did not receive a treatment.

Overall, I believe that the increasing availability of VR consoles such as Oculus Rift will change the game for the medical industry, at least in the psychology department. In the past, VR machines were too expensive, so only a few clinics could afford them. Now Oculus Rift is expected to be released this year for the highly affordable price range of 200-400 US dollars. Indeed, this year will be a stepping stone for the great science-fiction-esque future we have all been dreaming about.

– Sean Nam

2 responses to “Virtual Reality is Becoming a Reality: A clinical application of VR

Leave a Reply