Virtual reality (VR) has already revolutionalised the gaming industry, allowing players to immerse themselves in incredible new worlds, built with a dazzling attention to detail. But the technology is now being adapted to become a rather unlikely tool. Scientists across the globe have been experimenting with VR to provide therapy for some serious mental health issues. And thanks to years of intricate research, many issues are now being addressed in ground-breaking ways.
For example, for many people everyday situations, such as riding on an underground train, can trigger a disproportionate response. But thanks to a team of experts at Oxford University, these people may no longer have to worry. A simulated trip of the London underground in VR has been created to help sufferers. As part of the study, 30 patients took part in a half hour session to face their fears. Seven simulated journeys were carried out in a specialised VR lab. They were then tested on their responses when faced with travelling on a train and a lift.
Professor Daniel Freeman reveals how each patient experienced more pressure throughout the treatment. But so far, Professor Freeman and his team have generated some very positive results. "From just 30 minutes in VR, using the right techniques, there were large reductions of paranoia. Immediately afterwards, over half the patients no longer had paranoia. Most importantly the benefits transferred to the real world."
And it is hoped that one day the VR treatments will be escalated into a full clinical trial.
But travelling on a packed London train, is only one of the experiences that many struggle with. Survivors of trauma suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can have it even worse. Whilst this may look like a scene from Call of Duty, it couldn't be further from a game. It is in fact a simulation from the Brain Mind Program developed by the Institute of Creative Technologies. The ultimate aim for the team is to recreate battlefield experiences to help US soldiers suffering from PTSD. Director of Medical Virtual Reality Skip Riso reveals how big VR roles is in providing this much needed therapy. "VR is an evocative technology. It can bring out emotion that sometimes can not come up in other ways. This is where VR shines, you can put people in simulations which bring up emotions, and then you can teach ways to deal with these emotions in an appropriate fashion".
And thanks to the teams hard work, the Brain Mind Program has now been introduced into more than 50 hospitals across the US. VR therapy isn't just for extreme cases though, it can also be helpful in treating day to day phobias. This service from the Virtually Better Clinic in the US, helps patients to overcome their fear of flying. A short journey from the airport lounge to the seat on the plane seems simple enough to most. But for those who dread flying, this experience is associated with beating hearts,sweaty palms and severe anxiety. By taking patients on simulated flights, they can confront their fears with a guidance of a virtual therapist. A life saving experience for many, for those who a held back by this particular phobia. And it doesn't stop there, Virtually Better have similar programs for people with phobias of lifts and heights.
But whilst VR is proving to help in overcoming fears, it is also helping to stimulate minds. The virtual forest from Alzheimer's Australia Vic, aims to engage dementia sufferers. The therapy immerses them in a calm peaceful world where they can hear butterflies fluttering and watch the snow fall. the sensory therapy application stimulates their senses, allows them to interact with the virtual world for 30 minutes. For residents who are highly agitated and find it difficult to engage for even then 5 minutes, this experience according to consultant Wantia, can be a revelation. "The virtual world will give a person living with a cognitive disability an enormous amount of possibilities like, feeling good about themselves, have some control of their lives, feel important, feel valued, because anytime we are taking their opinions, they feel valued, and their self-esteem is going up immediately. When every role has been taken from them, just giving it back, and that is priceless."
Using state-of-the-art gaming technology, Unreal Engine 4, the designers have been able to create a full immersive virtual environment. One they hope will help with dementia care on multiple platforms. From helping stress solders and paranoid tube travelers and stimulating minds of the elderly VR is completely changing psychological therapy. Innovations in the field have already helped a wide spectrum of people and it's continued development promises a renewed hope to many more.