Softer reality treats fears

VIRTUAL reality is being used to treat people with a fear of heights, by exposing them to a computer-generated version of their real-life terrors, writes Nuala Moran.

More than 90 per cent of the acrophobics taking part in a study in California were reported to have reached self-assigned 'height goals'.

The technique, christened virtual therapy, opens up a new market for virtual reality systems in medicine, where at present they are used in training, allowing doctors to see inside 'virtual' patients.

The virtual environment in which the subjects were immersed showed a cafe with an elevated patio and a plank from the patio to a bridge. The panorama was created on a virtual reality system from the British company Division. Thirty-two volunteers donned the helmet display system, which tracks head movements and instantly displays the scene corresponding to each new head position. The sufferers had to leave the cafe and walk on to the patio, crossing the plank and exploring the bridge. The system allows them to operate much as in real life, looking over the edge of the plank or the bridge, for example.

Heart rate and blood pressure showed the acrophobics were experiencing the stress and acute anxiety associated with actual encounters with heights.

After the virtual encounter, the volunteers were given challenges in the real world, such as driving across a bridge or going up in a glass-sided lift while looking out at the surroundings. More than 90 per cent managed to complete these tasks. Ralph Lamson, from the department of psychiatry at the Kaiser-Permanente Medical Group in California, who carried out the study, believes virtual reality could be used to treat other phobias.

'Virtual therapy gives the individual an opportunity to approach the thing they are fearful of in a virtual environment. Being immersed in a virtual feared situation is very close to the real situation. After virtual therapy, participants feel they have already had a success. This appears to be a strong confidence builder,' he said.

A couple of years ago, researchers at Leeds University announced they had successfully treated arachnophobia, or fear of spiders, by exposing sufferers to 'virtual' spiders.

In another form of virtual therapy, a group at the University of Washington, Seattle, has succeeded in helping people with Parkinson's Disease, who often experience difficulty in initiating and sustaining walking. The researchers simulated an effect called kinesia paradoxa, in which normal walking is triggered by putting obstacles at the feet of Parkinson's patients. Although this effect is well known, it has not been a practical way of treating people. Virtual reality was used to simulate the physical obstacles without the problem of placing them in front of patients and risking tripping them up.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Retirement Coordinator - Financial Services

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: To provide a prompt, friendly and efficient se...

Recruitment Genius: Annuities / Pensions Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will be the first point of contact for all...

Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Officer - Altrincham - up to £24,000.

£18000 - £24000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Of...

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Programme Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss