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Fear factor: Using virtual reality to overcome phobias

3493601806_7f5512fe6d_zPast research has shown that virtual reality can be effective in treating phantom limb syndrome, helping smokers kick their nicotine habit, easing patients' pain and reducing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, among other things. Now a pair of engineering students at Santa Clara University in California are exploring the potential of the technology to assist individuals in overcoming their fear of heights and other anxiety-related conditions.

The design duo behind the project are undergrads Paul Thurston and Bryce Mariano. The students partnered with Kieran Sullivan, PhD, a psychology professor at Santa Clara, to develop a simulation tool that guides patients through a controlled virtual environment populated with phobia-triggering features. More details about the system were provided in this recent university story:

They started with a fear of heights simulation. As the patient takes in a 360-degree view from atop a building, the therapist can alter the virtual height and the resultant view—backing off or increasing exposure as needed according to the patient’s emotional response. While the team stresses that their tool is for use by trained therapists, not for sufferers to use on their own, Thurston notes that just knowing you can take the goggles off while immersed in the experience may make this form of treatment more approachable for some.

"Another aspect of our project that has been very important to us is to keep it affordable as well as accessible for future development," said Mariano. "By using economical hardware and developing the simulation using the Unity Game Engine, which is 100 percent free and readily available, we hoped to create a platform that would allow others to easily pick up the project where we left off and continue expanding on the library of simulations to treat the widest possible range of phobia patients."

Previously: From "abstract" to "visceral": Virtual reality systems could help address pain and Can behavioral changes in virtual spaces affect material world habits?
Via CBS San Francisco
Photo by Amber Case 

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