Virtual reality (VR) may be able to cure people’s fear of heights, according to a new study by the University of Oxford.
Acrophobia, or fear of heights, is one of the most common phobias and is currently estimated to affect around one in five people. Now, in one of the largest ever randomised controlled trials for treating acrophobia, researchers believe that VR could be the answer to reduce people’s fears.
A team led by Professor Daniel Freeman from the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry used a VR programme to treat people’s fear of heights. The team’s programme differs to previous VR treatments by including a virtual coach, rather than a therapist to guide users through the treatment.
The study included 100 people who were randomly allocated to VR therapy or no treatment. On average, those who had a fear of heights had lived with the phobia for 30 years. Those assigned to the treatment were given five sessions using VR and spent around two hours overall in the virtual space.
The VR Therapy, designed by the University’s spinout Oxford VR, has users wearing a HTC Vive headset and using hand controllers to engage with the programme.
When wearing the headset, users were given tasks to complete by a virtual coach who directed them through the floors of a large ten-storey office complex. During initial sessions, users could only access the first five floors and were given easier tasks to complete before more difficult ones came later on. Certain tasks such as rescuing a cat from a tree or throwing balls over the edge of the floor were designed to engage the user with their fear. After the session, users would be brought down to the ground floor of the office where the virtual coach would ask them about their fears. Users would also be encouraged to engage with real heights in between sessions.
According to professor Freeman, the programme was designed ‘to be as imaginative, entertaining, and easy to navigate as possible’. The tasks definitely seem to exhibit a fantastic array of creativity and one even has users riding a virtual whale around the atrium space.
More so, the VR treatment seems to work with all participants using the headset showing a reduction in fear of heights. The study showed that those in the VR group reduced their fears by over three quarters, results which are better than those expected even with the best psychological intervention.
Professor Freeman, who is also a clinical psychologist in Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, 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.”
He continued: “When VR is done properly, the experience triggers the same psychological and physiological reactions as real-life situations. And that means that what people learn from the VR therapy can help them in the real world.”
It’s not just professor Freeman who was enthusiastic about the treatment and its associated results. One participant in the trial, Sarah, says that it has changed her day-to-life for the better.
“What I’m noticing is that in day-to-day life I’m much less averse to edges, and steps, and heights, and I’m noticing in myself that when I’m doing the VR and out in the real-world I’m able to say hello to the edge instead of bracing against it and backing up. I feel as if I’m making enormous progress,” Sarah said.
The availability of VR technology as consumer products potentially means that millions of people around the world could access previously unavailable treatment for phobias and indeed more serious mental health problems.
Professor Freeman said: “The advent of consumer VR equipment means that automated treatment can potentially be made available to millions. But what’s even more exciting is the prospect of using VR to tackle serious and widespread mental health problems, such as depression, psychosis, and addictions. 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.”