Will the Rise of VR Change the Face of Therapy?

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flickr photo shared by Hiren_T under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

2016 looks like it’s going to be the year of virtual reality (VR), with PlayStation VR, the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift all expected to release in the next few months. But while it may be the hottest thing in gaming, VR already has a rich history of therapeutic use. Virtual reality therapy (VRT) got its start in the early 90s, and has been widely used in the treatment of PTSD, anxiety disorders, phobias and other mental health issues since.

So what happens to VRT when virtual reality devices are this readily available? This week, TechCrunch explored the current state of VRT, with an eye to how it might grow now that patients may have their own VR solutions at home.

A key challenge today is the lack of clinical evidence and data to support if and how VR can be used to administer effective treatment both in the clinic (expanded use) and remotely. Companies wishing to penetrate this market will need to conduct well-designed, randomized, controlled, properly powered clinical studies in order to change or influence treatment paradigms. There will undoubtedly be a flood of VR apps in the coming months and years attempting to solve these mental health issues.

Some examples might include remote teletherapy by qualified practitioners who use VR as a supplementary tool, in-clinic VR therapy, virtual therapists created using artificial intelligence or patient-directed VR therapy in the absence of a professional therapist. It remains to be seen which options can deliver real, effective and sustaining treatment to mental health patients across the world, or even people with no diagnosable disorder who want to reduce generalized stress and anxiety in their lives.

TechCrunch also looks at games like Deep, an underwater exploration simulation that encourages meditative breathing techniques through the use of biofeedback sensors. Meditative VR environments are increasingly popular as self care tools.

Game developer Theresa Duringer recently related her own experiences using VR to help cope with her flight phobia—while anecdotal, it’s an interesting read:

Wearing the headset, I saw a glittering sky above me, a mirrored aqueduct below, and dreamy buildings of an ancient city on either side.  The game surrounded me, no matter where I looked.  Years ago I visited sensory deprivation tank.  The vacuum of sensation left me alone with my thoughts.  VR seems to lie on the opposite end of the sensory spectrum.  It’s immediate, attention grabbing, and leaves little room for inner dialog.  On this flight, that’s exactly what I was looking for.

By the end of the second flight I was pretty excited.  Hands dryer.  Heart steadier.  My fear wasn’t completely neutralized, but the flights were definitely more tolerable.  I’m kind of looking forward to my next flight back home.

Whether VR turns out to be a gimmick or a long-term player in the gaming world, its resurgence is already creating opportunities for both self-exploration and therapy alike.