Acrophobia, or fear of heights, is the most commonly reported phobia, affecting one in five people during their lifetime, with one in 20 people clinically diagnosed. In the course of the game in virtual reality, patients had to perform certain tasks associated with height, and in the intervals between the tasks of the virtual therapist asked about changes in the patient's condition.
The subject rated the extent of their fear of heights with scores in a series of questionnaires at the start of the study, at the end of the two-week therapy period, and then again two weeks later.
The pre-recorded, 30-minute programme sessions ran automatically, with the virtual coach describing what participants needed to do.
The therapy involved wearing a headset and performing activities within the virtual simulation such as rescuing a cat stuck on a tree or walking across a rope bridge. For ethical fairness, after the research period, the participants who were in the control group could have the VR treatment if sought. At the four week follow-up, in fact, 34 out of the 49 original participants did not have fear of heights any longer.
"The beauty of VR in all of this is that people know it's not real, and therefore they're much more likely to try a thing", said Dr. Freeman about the benefits of the program, adding that "some people really do not want to see a therapist".
Although the upfront cost for implementing VR treatment is initially higher, they said, "subsequent costs for this treatment are very low, with no need for a therapist to be present, and cheap consumer VR hardware is used".
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The authors identified some limitations, such as the lack of a direct comparison between now utilized psychological treatments for phobias (counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy or psychotherapy) and the automated VR therapy.
"We are carrying out clinical testing to learn whether automation of psychological treatment using virtual reality works for other mental health disorders", said Freeman.
During the first VR session, the individual had an assessment with an animated virtual coach who walked the patient through the cognitive-based intervention. Also, the participants were self-referred which may have introduced some degree of selection bias.
The question remains whether VR therapy will be equally effective in more serious conditions such as psychosis which are now treated only by mental health professionals in one-on-one sessions. It is already known that treatments focused on specific symptoms such as auditory hallucinations produce promising results with potentially greater effect sizes, but are presently available only in personal therapy by experts.
The positive findings of this study will pave the way for future research on therapy delivered using VR technology.