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Treating Psychological Disorders with Virtual Reality

The emerging technology that is gaining traction with devices such as Google Cardboard and Oculus Rift has applications that go far beyond mere entertainment. Virtual reality can be used as a therapy tool, helping patients cope with trauma, stress, anxiety or other psychological complications. Virtual reality tools can be used in methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy or exposure therapy without inheriting some of the disadvantages of those techniques.

Virtual reality in exposure therapy

Treating Psychological Disorders with Virtual RealityAn example of employing virtual reality in exposure therapy is treating war veterans. The immersion power of the technology allows the ex-soldiers to cope with the emotions of combat in a safe and controlled environment. This also applies to someone who is afraid of heights and is placed in a flight simulator, or someone who fears venomous animals and faces a virtual snake.

Although exposure therapy has proven to be an effective treatment for several disorders, many trauma patients tend to reject it. A 2007 study with 150 patients, published in the CyberPsychology & Behavior journal, showed that 27% of them refused the method. However, when the possibility of using virtual reality was introduced, the rejection index dropped to only 3%.

Another advantage of VR exposure therapy is that it can help reduce reliance on medicine, which can have side effects. A 2014 study, involving Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with PTSD, showed that virtual reality therapy improves the effect of the drugs, helping to lower dosages.

Predictable dissemination

Virtual reality therapy has been employed in experimental psychiatry for many years, but one large obstacle has prevented it from reaching most clinics: the technology's immaturity until very recently meant that VR devices were few, expensive and featured limited technical capabilities.

The scenario begins to change as new and affordable VR gadgets are introduced in consumer markets. While the most sophisticated devices, like Oculus Rift, are too expensive for common wallets, Google's Cardboard (self-explanatory) is sold on the Internet for prices starting just at $20. This wide availability of the tech creates a wide avenue for the dissemination of virtual reality therapy, in-person and remotely. Not to mention the possibility of integrating it with artificial intelligence (AI), which could eventually replace human therapists in some cases.

Virtual reality therapy still has a large room to grow, but several enterprises based on it are beginning to pop up. In the US, The Virtual Reality Medical Center offers a specific system (featuring audio equipment, moving chairs and special software) for those who are afraid of flying. Other companies, such as Virtually Better, CleVr, Psious, VirtualRet and Mimerse, also develop virtual treatment for various phobias. Many of these treatments resemble academic studies and some even involve VR-based video games.