While the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality immersion device, is slated for release only early next year, researchers are already trying to implement practical uses for it. At Santa Clara University a couple engineering and computer science students are working on using the Rift to fight phobias, initially focusing on a fear of heights and flying. With a background in video games, the pair teamed up with the chair of the university’s psychology department to study how phobias are treated and how to create a virtual reality experience that will progressively address patient fears.
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The investigators came up with a system that pairs a Rift headset with a touchscreen tablet. The patient wears the Rift, while a therapist uses the tablet to guide the experience and tailor it to the patient’s unique needs. In their heights simulation, for example, the treatment starts with the patient virtually standing on top of a building.
Initially it is not very tall, but the therapist can slowly increase the building’s height while watching the emotional response of the patient. By increasing the height without terrifying the patient, the therapy can gently nudge acrophobics to get used to being on tall objects and hopefully eventually lose their fear.
While the heights in the virtual world may frighten patients, the team noted that because wearers of the device know they can take it off at any time, they seem to more accepting of trying out the system. Of course an important step will be to actually test the system with real patients to see whether it is truly effective at allaying fears once and for all.