Fear of heights tackled using VR experience
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Scientist at the University of Oxford have helped patients overcome their fear of heights by using virtual reality.
One hundred people with a fear of heights were randomly allocated to receive either VR therapy or no treatment as part of a control group. Participants had on average lived with a fear of heights for 30 years.
Those who received the therapy spent an average of two hours in VR over five treatment sessions and all participants in the VR group showed a reduction in fear of heights, with the average reduction being 68 per cent.
A number of dizzying experiences were simulated such as being perched on the edge of a 10th-floor balcony.
Starting from a low elevation, the users progressed floor by floor up through the office building, carrying out increasingly difficult tasks as they got higher.
They engaged in activities designed to be both entertaining and increasingly terror-defying. Examples included crossing a rickety walkway; stepping out on a platform with no safety barriers; rescuing a cat from a tree, and playing a xylophone on the edge of a balcony.
Finally, they were given the opportunity to ride a virtual whale around the atrium space.
The patients were guided by an avatar ‘coach’ that encouraged them to face their fears.
Professor Daniel Freeman, from Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry, said: “The results are extraordinarily good. We were confident the treatment would prove effective, but the outcomes exceeded our expectations.
“Over three-quarters of the participants receiving the VR treatments showed at least a halving of their fear of heights. Our study demonstrates that virtual reality can be an extremely powerful means to deliver psychological therapy.
“We know that the most effective treatments are active: patients go into the situations they find difficult and practise more helpful ways of thinking and behaving. This is often impractical in face-to-face therapy, but easily done in VR.”
Participants were enthusiastic about the treatment.
One, Sarah, said: “What I’m noticing is that in day-to-day life I’m much less averse to edges and steps and heights. I feel as if I’m making enormous progress.”
Another, Nico, said: “It’s absolutely brilliant. I found myself even after the third floor, fourth floor, going up, feeling nervous, anxious about what’s about to happen next. It definitely pushed the limits in terms of what I thought I would be able to achieve and then got me to go past that.”
The trial opened up the “exciting” prospect of using virtual reality to tackle other problems, such as depression, psychosis and addictions, said Prof Freeman.
He added: “Rigorous testing will be vital, but it feels as though we may be looking at a big part of the future of mental health treatments.”
Dr Mark Salter, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “We fully support innovative research into the use of information technologies to treat mental illness.
“There are, however, limitations to the study that should be considered before this treatment can be provided as part of routine health care.
“For example, there is no long-term follow up on patients who have received this treatment.
“While the main advantage of this treatment is that it’s cheap, we need to be very cautious before considering machine-based intelligence as an appropriate, easily affordable ‘stand in’ for skilful, well-resourced and empathic healthcare professionals.”
While VR has long been associated with gaming, consumer adoption has been slow in recent years. Commercial interest in the technology is ramping up as companies start using it for everything from spreadsheets to team meetings.