Dr Eric Malbos, of Australia’s Macquarie University, has been studying the effectiveness of using virtual reality (VR) exposure therapy on patients who suffer from Agoraphobia (defined as “the fear of being in places or situations from which escape might be difficult or embarrassing.”)
“The goal here is to demonstrate the clinical efficiency of VR exposure therapy: does it really treat these patients and alleviate them from their phobias? Are the virtual environments realistic enough to achieve those goals?” Dr Malbos told IncGamers.
Patients wear a classic head-mounted VR display (pictured,) which allows them to interact with scenarios such as a busy subway or supermarket. “Because the patients do not need to venture outside the medical facility” Dr Malbos’ study abstract states, “virtual reality offers multiple efficient, flexible, controlled, confidential and harmless environments, saving time and money.”
Though the sample size is currently small (just five patients, with plans to recruit another twenty,) if studies continue to show positive results Dr Malbos intends to seek further investment. Ultimately, this could mean commercial publication of the virtual environments for use by mental health professionals or a VR treatment centre being established at Macquarie University.
No matter how familiar patients are with videogames, simulations can still trigger their agoraphobia. “If the VR environments contain the basic cues which stressed the phobics, then they will experience anxiety no matter their previous game experience,” Dr Malbos told us.
He cannot disclose the name of the graphics engine used to create the VR environments until the study is published in a scientific paper, but notes that “in my previous study in France, I have used the Unreal Tournament 2003 engine [Unreal Engine 2].”