Adam Chapman

Virtual Reality And Therapy

Is it possible to create a world to help those who have trouble in the reality that surrounds them?

I myself have suffered from social anxiety and panic attacks for the best part of 10 years ever since I first felt my heartbeat racing and nausea whilst sat in the middle of an assembly hall in year 9 of high school. After having been through the conventional methods of counselling, CBT therapy and recently starting a program of guided mindfulness meditation whilst suffering relapse after relapse over the years this disorder has become something that I have accepted and learnt to live with but struggled with daily.

At its worst stage developed into a fear that grabbed me whenever I got on a bus, went somewhere new, or felt that control had been taken from me. The fear itself sounds ridiculous to the rational part of my inner conscious, it’s a fear of vomiting in public, something that obviously with years at university and heavy drinking happened on a number of occasions, yet somehow due to the context of the situation, drinking, never really seemed to be something that bothered me. It struck at the times when it would be unusual for such a thing to happen. As previously mentioned, when on a bus, when in a class, when in a restaurant ETC. My brain worked overtime to develop “Escape Routes” something very common in those suffering from general anxiety and panic attacks. I had to plan out where an “escape” is, whether that is a toilet, an alleyway or just somewhere out of view of the general public.

Another form of escape I often turned to has been video games. I’m not the kind of basement dwelling World of Warcraft “I haven’t been outside in 5 days” sort of gamer, but the casual gamer who may spend an accidentally 5-8 hour session here and there when trying to rid myself of a torrid hangover or wasting the time away until payday (The latter being a direct consequence of the former). The way you could just switch your brain off to the outside world and for a time be somewhere else, mentally. Of course, as the name would suggest with any ‘mental health’ issue the physical symptoms are bought on by the way the brain processes the surrounding environment, so being able to in a sense change this environment was something that helped me tremendously at the height of my episode.

This is why the idea of virtual reality has always interested me, if it would ever be possible to manipulate the brain into reacting to an environment, to in a sense ‘trick’ it. This is why I am so excited about the advancements in the last few years into virtual reality with Microsoft’s recently announced partnership with Oculus Rift to rival Sony’s push with its own Playstation VR. With sight and sound being taken care of with these headsets other projects are aiming to cover all other bases for Full immersion. Products such as the Virtuix OMNI and Cyberith Virtualizer, both of which act like a 360-degree treadmill allowing full movement for the user.

Virtuix Omni

Cyberith recently demonstrated a collaboration with the PrioVR Motion tracking body suit which in my personal opinion shows the very early stages of what the future holds for virtual reality.

Virtual reality is already used in a basic form and has been used for some years in courses such as ‘Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy’ (VRET) which is now being invested in heavily to help Veterans suffering from PTSD. Although the idea which was forged by Dr Max North and termed for the first time in his work “Virtual Environment and Psychological Disorders” released in July 1994, the technology for a full and effective immersion has not been possible until now or at least in the next 5 years once developers had come to grips with the new tech and branches away from purely entertainment purposes. In the video below shows this early version of virtual reality in a therapeutical usage.

An art project caught my eye and got me thinking. The experiment, titled seeing I will involve Mark Farid living 28 days seeing life through a virtual reality headset. All the other things he sees and hears for this 28 days shall be those experienced by “The Other” who shall be wearing glasses with a 180-degree view feeding this information to Mark’s own headset. The video on the website ends asking the question “Will Mark start to believe this new life as his own?”

Of course with this, the psychological impact could be enormous on Mark’s psyche thus precautions are being taken to make sure he is keeping his head in-tact throughout the 28 days. The findings from this experiment could well set the ball rolling for new understandings of the human mind. Is it possible that like how meditation alters the brainwaves of those who practice, and hallucinogenic drugs alter ones view on reality, that living a month in someone else’s life could indeed have such an effect as to alter the participant’s brain activity to such an extent that it could change their character?

However, even if this was successful it doesn’t come without its concerns.

There are many ethical issues with the progression into virtual reality. Even in pre-virtual reality times, some gamers are investing their time, money and even personalities, life goals and full lives into Games such as Second Life. This game has already created weird and wonderful stories of two people meeting and then getting married IN GAME then meeting and getting married in REAL LIFE. This apparently isn’t as rare a thing as one might imagine. What is concerning though is the story of Amy Pollard, who filed for a divorce from, then husband, David Pollard after his avatar was caught having sex with another female avatar in the online game.

Second Life, Although it looks like it, it plays nothing like The Sims.

Another concern is how already video game addiction has caused multiple deaths or psychological trauma in cases around the world. In 2012 a Taiwanese teenager was found dead in an Internet café after playing Diablo 3 for over 40 hours. Furthermore, in a similar case of a competitive gamer from South Korea, Lee Seung Seop died of exhaustion and dehydration after settling down to play around a 50-hour session on the real-time strategy game Starcraft. Already people are ignoring the signs that their bodies are giving them and are actually beginning to harm themselves so if someone was fully immersed in a world they didn’t want to leave, then with that, comes more danger.

What’s scary is that if someone creates another world, another reality in which they prefer who’s to say they will hold any sense of well being in the real world, or for that matter, will they even want to return to the world they have tried to ‘escape’.

A sign of the future?

Of course this is all dystopian thinking and I’m sure that with trial and error, regulations and safety will be of the upmost importance to developers.

Further concerns however rest on the physical effects virtual reality could have on the body. In its early stages people who use virtual reality often complain of a sort of motion sickness named “Cyber sickness” due to the stress on the eyes and distortion of movement from the participant and the “world” they see. The symptoms include as mentioned straining of the eyes, as well as, nausea, vomiting, vertigo and disorientation. Indeed findings from a study conducted in 2011 at the Delft University of Technology found only 14 out of 88 participants (53 Males and 35 females) reported no symptoms of cyber sickness in the two courses of VRET they were exposed to. With true virtual reality still in its early stages, it is impossible to tell what the long-term effects could be. Some have theorised that issues in spatial awareness, as well as reduced hand-eye co-ordination in everyday life, could be a side effect from long-term use, however as it’s still early days, nothing is for certain.

One thing that is for sure is that I’m excited to see where this can go, what dramas and success stories shall develop in an ever-changing world and by that I mean this world, the real world, not the virtual world.