Rachel Fieldhouse


Daunted by therapy? Virtual reality could be the answer

Daunted by therapy? Virtual reality could be the answer

 If opening up to a therapist seems like a near-impossible task, new research shows that you’re not the only one - and proposes a new option that could soon be available.

A study from Edith Cowan University, published in Frontiers in Virtual Reality, found that 30 percent of people surveyed would rather talk about negative experiences with a virtual reality (VR) avatar than a real-life person.

Researchers created a ‘realistic motion avatar’ that appeared similar to its real-life counterpart, then compared the social interactions between people talking to the avatar versus a real person.

Participants then rated their experience on factors such as enjoyment, comfort, awkwardness, perceived understanding, and how much they think they disclosed about themselves.

Dr Shane Rogers, a psychology and communication researcher involved in the study, said participants found VR and face-to-face interactions to be quite similar in all but one way.

“Overall, people rated VR social interaction as similar to face-to-face interaction, with the exception of closeness, where people tended to feel a little closer with each other when face-to-face,” Dr Rogers said.

“This technology has the potential for broad application across a number of areas such as casual conversation, business, tourism, education and therapy,” he said.

“The study found that 30 percent of people preferred disclosing negative experiences via VR. This means that therapy might be opened up to new people who don’t feel comfortable with traditional face-to-face interactions.”

Virtual reality has been used in video games for several years now, but new research shows it can also be used in mental health settings. Image: Getty Images

Though VR has been around for several years, the new research is among several new studies and initiatives applying the technology to treat mental health conditions.

In the United States, veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are being treated with the assistance of VR, which can transport them back to traumatic experiences - even if they struggle to remember the event or other details.

The tech has also been used in “empathy training”, where clinicians wear VR headsets to better understand what patients in their care are experiencing, particularly for veterans with dementia or older LGBTQ veterans.

“Now what you hear and what you see in front of your eyes is the same thing as a patient who’s experiencing dementia or an LGBTQ vertan who’s ageing,” Anne Lord Bailey, a pharmacist and director of clinical tech innovation involved in the scheme, told FedTech.

“All of a sudden, people start talking to you and what you hear is muddled, or your vision doesn’t see what you should be seeing. It looks distorted, or I can’t hear things because they’re not clear, even though I can tell that people are talking to me. Or, I get disoriented: I try to turn to the right, and things are shifty or crooked.”

Meanwhile, the UK NHS launched a treatment plan last year using VR to treat patients with trypanophobia, or a phobia of needles, ahead of their Covid vaccinations. Patients are treated by being exposed to scenarios such as a medical waiting room or blood draw, to help therapists treat patients’ fears in a controlled environment.

“VR is very effective at bridging the gap between real-life exposure and what the patient feels able to do at the time they enter treatment,” Vanessa Dodds, a cognitive behavioural therapist involved in the UK program, told Medical Device Network.

Dr Rogers echoed this sentiment, adding that improvements in the technology will improve its affordability and accessibility as a treatment option - with applications beyond therapy as well.

“It might also enable therapists to conduct therapy more effectively at a distance, as a person can be in the therapist room (in virtual reality) while seated in their own home,” he said.

“More powerful computers are becoming more affordable, VR headsets are continuing to develop, and more user-friendly VR interaction software platforms are becoming more available and being updated.”

Following the work by Dr Rogers and his colleagues, future steps will involve more investigation of how different aspects of the avatar affect user experience, as well as how VR can be used in therapeutic settings.

Image: Getty Images