Health and wellness

Fear of heights? A virtual reality flying whale ride helps you get over it, researchers discover

One in five people have a fear of heights at some point in their lives, and most never receive treatment. VR-based therapy in which they rescue a cat from a tree, ride a whale and more brings a big reduction in fear levels, a study shows

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 July, 2018, 10:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 July, 2018, 10:03pm

People who have lived with a fear of heights for decades became less afraid after virtual reality (VR) therapy had them riding a flying whale, researchers said this week.

A specialised team that included psychologists and IT experts put confirmed acrophobes through their paces in a series of lifelike VR simulations, after which all reported “a reduction in fear”, they announced.

VR-based treatments, the team concluded, “have the potential to greatly increase treatment provision for mental health disorders.”

With a virtual “coach” to guide people through treatment, the new method could offer a low-cost way of providing care to people who cannot afford or access a face-to-face therapist.

The VR coach uses an actor’s recorded voice.

Fear of heights, the most common phobia, affects one in five people at some point in their lives, but most never receive treatment, researchers say. They published their findings in The Lancet Psychiatry medical journal.

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The team recruited 100 volunteers for the latest study. Half were given VR treatment and the other half not, to allow for comparison.

This was the first VR phobia treatment not to require the presence of a real-life therapist, the team said.

“We designed the treatment to be as imaginative, entertaining and easy to navigate as possible,” explained study leader Daniel Freeman of the University of Oxford’s psychiatry department.

Wearing goggles and tactile gloves while standing safely on firm ground, patients moved around a 3D world centred in the massive atrium of a computerised, 10-storey office building.

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The pre-recorded, 30-minute programme sessions ran automatically, with the virtual coach describing what participants needed to do.

Tasks included having to cross a rickety bridge, rescue a cat from a tree, perform tasks near the edge of a balcony – and ride a flying whale.

The outcome after several sessions exceeded the researchers’ expectations.

In self-reported feedback, “over three-quarters of the participants receiving the VR treatments showed at least a halving of their fear of heights”, said Freeman.