Imagine you are sitting in a chair. All of a sudden a giant tarantula slowly begins to crawl toward you. You reach forward, trying to swipe it away, but nothing happens. It turns out the spider is just an illusion — created by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin. No, this isn’t torture. This is virtual reality exposure therapy.
In the past, therapy involved using real, living spiders. However, live exposure as a treatment option is difficult to deliver to people who fear things that cannot be easily brought indoors like blood (hemophobia), airplanes (aerophobia) and large animals (zoophobia).
Now, UT researchers from the Department of Psychology and the Institute of Mental Health Research say VR is simpler and maybe just as effective. They used the 3D stereoscopic features of the Oculus Rift to simulate the depth and motion of a spider being held by a model and then slowly crawling toward you. Seventy-seven UT undergraduates in an introductory psychology course who have a fear of these creepy crawlies participated in the study.
After several VR sessions, participants were tested with a live tarantula and were found to have clinically significant improvement, as published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders. The researchers also compared VR therapy results with another live exposure alternative -— CGI therapy — and found VR had greater improvement possibly due to its ability to stimulate 3D first-person fears, whereas computer-generated imagery is 2D and lacks photorealistic depth. Today, they are continuing to solidify their claims with more experiments and are investigating other applications of virtual reality.