University researchers in Ontario and Quebec are experimenting with virtual reality to treat some of the world’s most common phobias.

Research subjects at the Université du Québec en Outaouais who fear spiders, flight,

tight spaces, crowds and rats are being exposed to computer-generated people, insects, animals and places to overcome their nagging fears.

The subject wears a helmet-type device, complete with eyewear that resembles ski goggles, explained Stéphane Bouchard, a psychology professor at the university.

Bouchard and a colleague from the University of Ottawa spoke about their joint research endeavours to media Wednesday at the Canada Research Chair in Clinical Cyberpsychology in Gatineau, Que.

Inside the goggles are two monitors, one for each eye. Attached to the device with Velcro is a motion tracker that ensures the visuals are synchronized to the subject’s movements. All visuals are transmitted in real-time, and the device provides real-time responses. When the subject walks around, talks, and turns his or her head, the sensation of “”being there”” is very real, added Bouchard.

Significantly, the same technology could be used by the telecom industry in the near future if users of landlines wish to view the person they are speaking with and want the illusion of being in the same room, said Bouchard.

For cyberpsychology purposes, the technology could be especially helpful for someone who fears talking to crowds or meeting people, he says. Because of their phobia, it can be difficult to get these patients out of their home to face their fears, he says. And crowds of real people aren’t always available, or cannot frequently congregate in a therapist’s office, said Bouchard.

“”Facing their fear in virtual reality might be more enticing and interesting,”” he said.

A virtual crowd’s behaviour can also be controlled by the therapist with the click of a mouse, exposing the patient to an audience that can be well-tempered, downright nasty, or somewhere in between. It all depends on the patient’s comfort level and progress, said Bouchard. During the patient’s virtual experience, the therapist also provides the necessary coaching and encouragement.

For people have arachnophobia — a fear of spiders — there are many different virtual worlds, some of which are “”very frightening,”” said Bouchard. “”So we try to follow the pace of the client and not go too fast.””

Previous studies indicate that a patient’s reaction to their virtual counterparts is “”roughly the same”” when compared to reactions with real people, said Bouchard, who co-authored a similar scientific study that was published last month in the journal CyberPsychology & Behaviour.

Experiments show the heart rates of phobic patients increase when they are exposed to virtual images of what they fear, he says. Other indicators include emotional responses, such as anxiety.

But the virtual people — often referred to by those in the field of cyberpsychology as avatars — must closely mimic human behaviour for the treatment to succeed, said Bouchard.

“”If you have a cheap cartoon-like virtual person, people don’t react to it. And if you have a good quality avatar, but it doesn’t behave like a normal person, then people don’t react to it. So there has to be a mix of quality and normal behaviour.””

While there is promise in the technology, there are still many barriers, says Martin Antony, a psychologist and director of the Anxiety Treatment and Research Centre at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont.

Phobia simulation equipment that is already on the market uses images that are still too cartoon-like, he said, referring to the equipment sold by Atlanta, Ga.-based Virtually Better.

“”It seems to work well for things like flying and height phobias where it may be enough to get the perspective of being in a high place. Whether it will work for snake and dog phobias, we just don’t know.””

Another prohibitive factor is cost. The cost for each phobia module can range from US$5,000 to US$10,000, not including the headgear other hardware, says Antony, who has tried to get his hospital to introduce the technology but has so far been unsuccessful.

Bouchard is also researching telepsychotherapy — the use of telecommunications to treat patients remotely. The intent is to combine the virtual reality element with telepsyhotherapy in the future, but there are challenges related to bandwidth capacity and lag-time, said Bouchard. Any lag-time between the transmission of visuals and the movements of the subject would make the patient experience unrealistic, he added.

Bouchard is not sure the technology can be commercialized, as the research team did not develop the virtual reality sequences from scratch. Rather, it purchased 3-D video games with editing capabilities. The team edited out “”the monsters and guns”” in the game, he said, and added new elements so the program was suitable for use in a clinical setting. The university doesn’t own the rights, but the modules can be downloaded from the research team’s Web site for free by users who own a legal copy of the game.

“”We expect in the next year or so to develop environments that can sell,”” said Bouchard.

Meanwhile, Antony said “”there’s still a lot of research needed to be done”” on the viability of phobia treatments that use virtual reality.

“”There’s only a few studies that compare it to live exposure. The early results are promising, but we need more research to see if it works as well as the real thing.””

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