Mobile Applications

Treating phobias with VR might help push it into the mainstream

My first rollercoaster ride left me weak-kneed, shell-shocked, and even more pale than normal. I only learned afterwards that the ride, Kennywood’s Phantom’s Revenge, had been the fastest roller coaster in the world when it debuted in the early 90s, and was still in the top dozen. I got my money’s worth of the one thing that every roller coaster exists to deliver to its customers: an exhilarating mixture of adrenaline and dopamine that they can’t get anywhere else.

Not yet, anyway. 2016’s biggest tech shakeup, the Virtual Reality revolution, was just heralded by the March 28 debut of Facebook’s Oculus Rift, which will be followed by HTC’s Vive headset this month and Sony’s Playstation VR headset in October. By the upcoming holiday season, consumers will have plenty of options for the latest next gaming system and what will, hopefully, become the tech interface that replaces computer screens the same way screens replaced paper.

With the rise of VR comes a chance at replicating the shock and awe audiences used to find at amusement parks — and VR desperately needs the profile-boost that a well-executed software application will deliver.

Why VR needs a strong app to survive

The biggest hurdle facing Virtual Reality in 2016 is application. Specifically, VR tech needs software that a vast audience appreciates. Without an audience, it’s earth-shaking innovation will have all the impact of a tree falling in an equally empty forest.

As the New York Times reported, “the first wave of apps and games available for [the Oculus Rift] narrows the device’s likely users to hard-core gamers”. Meanwhile, the many potential VR applications — VR-powered appearances at major sports events, the doctor’s surgery, or even locations straight out of tomorrow’s international headlines — are all in the near-yet-too-distant future. As IDG Connect’s editorial director Martin Veitch has noted, “technologies need software that people crave”. VR needs a stand-out app.

If current apps are too specific, and future applications in film or news organisations are too complicated, VR’s salvation must be something a general audience would love while remaining simple enough to execute today. Luckily, one idea fits the bill, and it’s already in use today, at the Van Gogh Hospital in Charleroi, Belgium.

Facing phobias through VR is simple, effective, and appealing

The hospital’s behavioural therapy unit is the only one in Belgium using 3D Virtual Reality headsets to treat people with anxiety disorders. In a room with a clinician, each patient dons VR equipment to load a program that offers “the visual and acoustic context” they need to face their fear and gain control over it.

VR is a great tool to treat phobias through exercise therapy, as the patient’s body remains safe while the brain reacts as if the situation were real, Van Gogh psychologist Noel Schepers explains. The resulting shift in thinking allows the patient to recover from their disorder.

Though the hospital’s officials hope to continue expanding their VR therapy to cover an even broader range of phobias (those currently covered include the fear of leaving one’s home, blood, heights, spiders, and crowds), the unit’s work is miniscule compared to the massive industry that Facebook and Sony hope to craft. The hospital’s small-scale work certainly proves that phobia-centric apps would be easy to create. A portable GoPro-bedecked array allowed Belgium’s neuroscientists to film each program. Phobia-centric apps similar to Von Gogh’s could be available for Virtual Reality headsets across the world as quickly as the headsets themselves. But would they have the mainstream appeal they’d need?

Fear-inducing apps must be designed with their audience in mind

Two challenges face a phobia-centric app marketed for a mass-media audience. First, there’s a big difference between a clinical anxiety disorder and a thrilling scare. Belgium’s doctors can rely on VR to safely explore the fears of patients who have nowhere else to turn thanks to their specific, life-disrupting anxiety disorder. Gamers, on the other hand, want to shock themselves with an extreme situation.

In this way, the approaches are polar opposites: immersion as a therapy is slow, gradually building up an anxiety-inducing situation so that the patient’s ability to tolerate it can be strengthened alongside the escalating “danger” of the VR setting. As one clip from Euronews demonstrates, a slowly rising VR elevator can help a patient overcome their acrophobia, an extreme fear of heights. The process is like rehabilitating after a lengthy bedrest: slow but steady. A VR horror app’s design, on the other hand, focuses on spooking rather than soothing. Those struggling with clinical disorders would be wise to stay away.

Plenty of minor phobias are widespread enough to appeal to a general audience: simulations of heights, blood, spiders, snakes, or enclosed spaces should strike the appropriate amount of fear in most people, though certain situations are bound to prove more challenging than others.

Which brings us to the second challenge a mainstream phobia app faces: not everyone wants a scare. We all have friends who sit out the rollercoaster ride, the haunted house, or the jump-scare-heavy horror film. The exhilaration of fear can easily turn into nausea.

But the solution is easy: just as any half-decent amusement park compensates for its roller coasters with a calming teacup ride, VR apps can offer a beach scene or quiet alpine pass for every scene in which a crazed clown buries you alive.

Phobia-focused apps emphasise VR’s mind-expanding potential

The marriage of VR and anxiety is so perfect that even the Oculus Rift’s tutorial, the Dreamdeck, includes a scene placing its users at the edge of a skyscraper.

Immersion therapy works on VR systems because immersion is the point of the headset: Virtual Reality succeeds when it convinces people that they have been transported elsewhere.

Game designers, like any storytellers, know that visceral emotion draws people into their world. Different genres rely on different emotions: comedy’s unexpected pratfalls rely on surprise, while anyone who saw Jurassic Park as a child remembers the immense pull of the emotion of wonder during the scene when the park’s dinosaurs are revealed. But arguably the strongest, most immediate emotion is fear. It tugs on humanity’s fight-or-flight instinct.

By doubling down in this principle through a stronger focus on phobia, the benefits of a mind exercise can be combined with the thrill of a tailor-made horror film. A series of seriously creepy phobia-centric scenarios is a simple, eye-catching solution to VR’s biggest problem, and it has already proven its merit. Properly channelled, the base human emotion of fear could carry the entire VR industry to heights higher than even the Phantom’s Revenge.


Read more:

VR at the virtual crossroads: which way next?

Wearable Tech Show: ‘Social’ VR network wants to end digital narcissism

Associated Press looks to VR for new chapter in journalism

Retail Tech Expo: Two holidays and Tesco shopping in Virtual Reality

VR vs. 360-degree video: Two perspectives

VR vs. 360-degree video: When YouTube moves immersive to ‘live’

Google's Tilt Brush: Finally, a magical VR experience

What does the Blippar deal mean for Augmented Reality?

Practical ways VR and gaming can be used to advance learning

2018 will be the year of VR

Virtual Reality 2016: Hyped but needing a dose of calm


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Adam Rowe

Adam Rowe is a freelance science and technology writer. He splits his freelance research time between finding bizarre science facts and bizarre science fiction, documenting it all @AdamRRowe.

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