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Can Virtual Reality Improve People’s Real Lives?

Researchers spot applications that go well beyond video games.
October 22, 2014

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says his $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR will allow his company to create the “next major computing platform” after mobile. The idea is that virtual reality promises to do more than make video games truly immersive: Zuckerberg also envisions new applications in communications. Already, virtual reality shows signs of being useful in treating mental illnesses and giving researchers ways to test theories of how humans behave.

Researchers are using immersive virtual-reality systems like Oculus Rift to gain greater insight into psychological and social issues.

Assistance for Autism

People with autism spectrum disorders often have severe phobias. For example, a couple explains in this video that they are limited in where they can go with their son because he is deeply afraid of stairs and bridges. Cognitive behavioral therapy is traditionally used to help people with phobias, but children with autism tend to have a hard time using the imagination it requires. To help these children get over their fears, Newcastle University researchers have set up a virtual-reality room completely covered in screens that display real-world scenarios. The children use iPads to move around a scene that makes them anxious, like a high bridge or a school playground with lots of birds. They can gradually get used to different challenges, allowing them to feel in control of their environment and practice breathing exercises and other methods to cope with anxiety. Eight of the nine boys who used the room were able to tackle a situation in the real world that they had previously feared, and four have completely overcome their phobias, according to a study published in PLOS One in July.

Psychiatric Progress

Early research shows that immersive virtual reality may help psychologists reduce paranoid thoughts in patients by improving their self-esteem. In one study, researchers in the U.K. and Spain invited 60 women who had recently had paranoid thoughts to wear a headset that projected scenes of a train ride. They took the ride twice, experiencing it at their normal height and at a level that made them feel shorter. While previous research has indicated a correlation between height and self-esteem or social status, these results showed that reducing the virtual height of the riders increased their paranoia and negative views of themselves. Many of the participants did not notice the height difference but nonetheless reported feeling more uncomfortable in the scenario where they rode the train at a lower height. The researchers are now testing whether making someone taller in virtual reality increases self-esteem, which could help boost confidence and reduce the tendency to have paranoid thoughts, clinical psychology professor Daniel Freeman explains in a blog post. The findings were published in August in Psychiatry Research. Furthermore, immersive virtual reality could be used to help predict the severity of paranoia and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to an article published online in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Assessment in April.

Dealing with PTSD

Combining virtual reality with medication has helped veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars recover from PTSD, Emory University researchers say. In a study of 156 veterans with PTSD from combat, each person received six sessions of virtual-reality exposure lasting 30 to 45 minutes. Through a headset, patients experienced scenes of streets in Iraq and Afghanistan from the perspective of a driver, passenger, or pedestrian. Before the session, the veterans took a placebo pill or one of two types of drugs. The researchers found that a combination of virtual reality and a drug sometimes administered in cognitive behavioral therapy decreased PTSD symptoms for more than a year. Combining the virtual-reality sessions with an antianxiety drug also helped, but not as much as a placebo. The study is explained in the April 18 edition of the American Journal of Psychiatry. Emory professor Barbara Rothbaum explains some virtual-reality treatments in this video.

Pedestrian Behavior

If architects and city planners could better model how crowds move through urban environments, they might find ways to make cities more amenable to large groups of people. They also could develop better signs and guidance for people with visual impairments, like a system that gives commands to help them merge with a crowd. Brown University’s Virtual Environment Navigation Laboratory has been studying the dynamics of crowds using Oculus Rift VR headsets modified to work wirelessly. A test subject walks around the Brown lab while wearing the headset and must react to virtual scenarios like a crowded train station or a group passing by in the opposite direction. Researchers have found that people generally match the speed and direction of others in the crowd, but further research will examine how they behave in unusual situations like an evacuation. In particular, the researchers could test the counterintuitive idea that putting a partition near an evacuation exit actually prevents bottlenecks, says William Warren, the Brown professor leading this research. Findings were published in the Journal of Vision in February, and this video explains more about the process.

The Takeaway:

Because researchers are able to modify virtual environments to test for different variables, they are able to observe situations that would be difficult or impossible to create in real life. Virtual reality may also hold promise for making everyday situations more bearable. For example, the E.U. is funding a project to reduce the anxiety of airline passengers with calming virtual images.

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