The future is now, apparently. When I first heard about the Oculus Rift, a Virtual Reality headset that was premiered on Kickstarter, it was like all of my childhood dreams had come true. Now, I would be able to play video games that felt like they were taking place around me. It’s been a few years since that headset first broke ground and changed the face (literally) of computer gaming in many ways, and yet to the layman, it seems like…not that much has changed. VR headsets haven’t exactly broken into the mainstream in the way that gaming consoles have. Sure, people are buying them and enjoying them, and there are even a few VR arcades here and there, but given the fact that they’re still relatively new technology, and the high price tag for any given headset doesn’t even take into account the expensive computers necessary to use them, it’s really no wonder that it’s still a niche technology.
Yet there has been a second use for Virtual Reality headsets that could have much more far-reaching and exciting implications. In the last few years, groups such as the USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies have been exploring the possibility of using VR to assist PTSD victims through immersive exposure therapy.
Approximately 3.5% of U.S adults suffer from PTSD, due to military experience, abuse, or any other factor. PTSD isn’t something that’s only experienced by those who have suffered in violent situations; emotional abuse, accidents, and other more common struggles can lead to post traumatic stress disorder as well. Currently, one of the primary forms of treatment is exposure therapy – in other words, facing the problem head-on, in a controlled environment. There have even been examples of mental health professionals using video games like Call of Duty to treat symptoms of PTSD.
But the new concept of using Virtual Reality to truly, and safely, immerse the individual in the situation they are struggling with so they can confront it is a new and promising venture. As the USC ICT described it:
“In addition to the visual stimuli presented in the VR head mounted display, directional 3D audio, vibrations and smells can be delivered into the simulation. Now rather than relying exclusively on imagining a particular scenario, a patient can experience it again in a virtual world under very safe and controlled conditions. Young military personnel, having grown up with digital gaming technology, may actually be more attracted to and comfortable with a VR treatment approach as an alternative to traditional ‘talk therapy.’”
PTSD isn’t the only mental disorder currently being explored through VR treatment: “There is some evidence which shows that VRET may be useful for treating several different anxiety disorders and anxiety-related problems,” Matthew Tull, PhD explains, “including claustrophobia, fear of driving, acrophobia (or a fear of heights), fear of flying, arachnophobia (or a fear of spiders), and social anxiety.” The use of full, virtual immersion means that the field of behavioral health could be experiencing a major new development over the next few years, as technology and costs continue to improve.
I own a VR headset (albeit a slightly cheaper model), and I can attest to the incredible level of immersion it provides. Within only a few seconds, the brain adjusts to the new “environment” and accepts it as convincingly real, even when the actual visuals aren’t completely true-to-life. This means that, depending on the source of the PTSD and how severe the symptoms are, treatment could theoretically be provided through any sort of visual stimuli and situation simulation. Whatever is affecting the individual, they can safely and effectively confront it if exposure therapy is right for them.
With so many Americans (and indeed, people across the world) struggling with PTSD and other behavioral health disorders that can be treated through exposure therapy, it’s clear that VR could be the future of treatment — cheaper and more effective than past methods, while providing a space where the individual, if they ever needed to stop, could simply pull the headset off. I love playing video games, and I’m having the time of my life exploring the possibilities of virtual reality, but if these headsets could be used to treat individuals and make their lives better, than it’s clear that the true wonders of virtual reality technology are still to come. The future’s looking bright.
Tull, Matthew, and Lyndsey Garbi. “How Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) Treats PTSD.” Verywell Mind, Dotdash, www.verywellmind.com/virtual-reality-exposure-therapy-vret-2797340.
“Prototypes.” Institute for Creative Technologies Medical Virtual Reality Comments, ict.usc.edu/prototypes/pts/.
“What Is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?” Warning Signs of Mental Illness, www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd.