Confronting Fear Through Virtual Reality
Contributing Writer: Lucille Anne Newman
It’s natural to feel afraid when faced with a distressing situation especially a potentially dangerous or terrifying event such as staring down at the world below from a very tall building or even when anticipating something as painful as a vaccination shot.
But when the fear is created by a traumatic event, that ability to manage fear becomes difficult to do on one’s own.
“From anxiety disorders, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), autism spectrum and beyond we want to provide content to help anyone overcome their mental barriers,” said Timothy Porter of Underminer Studios, who has also dealt with PTSD, but felt there had to be a better way to deal with the issue than medication. “Years ago I was diagnosed with PTSD due to several head traumas that occurred in my life. The only solution I was presented for my issues was medication. I always knew that there had to be a better way. Fast forward to late 2015 during an onsite visit with a client, I was watching several people who had never been in a VR (simulation) before and I realized that these people were truly afraid of the images.”
Porter remembers one of the participants who literally threw off the VR headset and ran out of the room.
“In my almost decade long career in games I've never seen a single person run away from a computer screen,” he explained. “However a striking realization that the same image on a HMD (Head Mounted Display) is enough to make a person with military experience have a fight or flight response was exciting. If I could elicit a response like fear I could also use this tech to help treat people. Virtual Reality allows the immersion of an individual into an environment that would otherwise be unsafe, unwise, or impractical for treatment.”
VR therapy was once used for study by the Kaiser Permanente Psychiatry Group in 1993-94, when asked how the program Underminer Studios is creating will differ from earlier programs. Erik Johnson, Occupational Therapist, and Chief Medical Officer for Operation Supply Drop, said the biggest difference is the advances made in technology.
“The biggest and most obvious difference is the advances in technology. In the 90's, this type of tech was incredibly hard to come by and would typically be found in a research type of setting,” said Johnson. “2016 brings VR into the hands of anybody who really wants it. The programs that we can potentially develop would go well beyond anything they could do with the tech back then. We also have a huge body of veterans who have recently fought in wars of the past 15 years. Almost all who likely have at least some sort of behavioral health challenge they acquired over their time in service.”
Johnson said VR therapy is not a one size fits all program. “It really depends on the needs of an individual. You can't specifically outline an objective treatment plan for people until you know their symptoms and the issues they're dealing with,” he said. “The program will, however, provide a wide range of therapies that can be graded for individual challenges that people might face. We certainly know that there will be incredibly complex diagnosis that will require a drawn out approach before we can see results. We also know that there will be less complicated scenarios that won't require as in depth of a program. Again, it just really depends on the individual and their specific symptoms.”
With the VR technology that is now available today, Porter said that VR is also within reach of those can benefit from the program.
“Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT) is a treatment that has been under-utilized due to the lack of available tech, until now,” Porter said. “There is a new initiative in VR to reach the consumer market which means that the equipment is more readily available and becoming more affordable every day. This style of treatment was first documented in the early 1990s having several studies showing a success rate of 70-90%. While technology at the time was either too costly or inaccessible, the newest generation of commercially available and affordable virtual reality gear allows for VRT to be a treatment method that can be accessed by a worldwide audience.”
Currently the goal is to have the therapy program available in late 2017, although the company is still in talks with several mental health providers, how it is used for therapy will be “entirely up to the therapist and dependent on the patient,” said Porter. Who continues to explain how the debut program “Confronting Fear Through Virtual Reality” will start with phobias of heights.
“The entire environment will be digital,” he explained. “The idea is lower levels will be cartoony with final levels more realistic. Final plans will include having our highest levels utilizing multi camera photogrammetry thus producing a truly amazing realistic environment. We follow a mixed method of therapy including graded-exposure and flooding. Thus our method allows the user to gradually increase the level of immersion while including the ability to escape to a more serene environment at a click. Creating a more effective treatment protocol with safeguards. Approachable solutions to mental health.”
“Since it is a medical device it would have to be determined by a medical professional and they would be responsible for the treatment plan for the patient,” Johnson added. “Ideally we would be a go to solution for medical professionals in offices, hospitals and private practices. Eventually we want to do outreach and treat people that have limited access or resources to seek out medical help for mental issues like populations that are incarcerated, homeless, living in impoverished countries and so on. Breaking the barriers of social stigma associated with traditional mental illness treatments and making VRT an approachable solution to mental health. On top of just doing staged immersion therapy specific to heights, we have the potential to look into things like PTSD, anxiety disorders, adjustment disorder, and even a ton of physical disability scenarios as well. The potential for tapping into all the spectrums of health is where our program shows the biggest difference.”
For more information about Underminer Studio’s VR program visit http://underminerstudios.com/UM-VR.html.