Phobia Free is almost here...

Itsy only wanted to say hello!

Itsy only wanted to say hello!

We will release Phobia Free worldwide on 25th May. We have developed this edition to help with spider phobia. It is now on limited release in Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. To celebrate I have decided to go through why we think this is a good idea. This is an update on a review I did about 6 months ago. Here's a link to the post I did then.

Virtual reality and augmented reality have great potential in their use in therapy. We use them as tools in our apps. Phobia Free features an augmented reality tarantula as one of the final challenges to overcome in the app. There are other examples as to how to use virtual exposure in the treatment of phobias.

How is it used?

The basic process of how to get someone to overcome a phobia involve a series of tried and tested steps. You first learn to identify irrational thoughts linked with the fear and your therapist helps you come up with strategies to fight the thoughts.  You then think of a list of situations from less scary to more scary to go through in order. Then with the support of the therapy you go through these situations and bit by bit you get better at coping with the anxiety and fear until whatever it was you were scared of doesn't bother you any more. Some people also find it useful to learn relaxation techniques to control the anxiety better.

The problem with this tends to be the bit where you ‘go through the situations in order’. This is easier said than done. Imagine you have a fear of flying. As you can see, it is not that easy to arrange for you to go into a parked plane without ever intending to take off just so you can experience the anxiety of being inside the aircraft.

Sometimes we get around this problem by getting you to imagine the situation in a lot of detail. Some people have good imaginations and are really good at creating the mental pictures they need to scare themselves and then practice coping with the situation. With some people this never works, even with the most descriptive therapist.

Enter virtual and augmented realities. By using high quality 3D images therapists are able to simulate the situations so well that you believe you are there. You are then able to work through your fear bit by bit in a much more flexible way than you would in the real world.

That sounds fantastic; what is the catch?

Sometimes people don’t like at all going into a simulator. However research suggests that most people do and that they like it better than going into the real situation. In some cases the simulators can make people feel motion-sick.

Even though they have dropped a lot in cost, virtual reality simulators are very expensive still and your local therapist is unlikely to be able to afford one. This is not only due to the hardware; the software can be quite expensive as well, especially if it needs to be tailored to the person. This equipment is likely to become more and more affordable as time goes by.

Augmented reality is better from a cost point of view. It is cheaper to create a detailed model of the thing that you are scared of and rely on the environment you are in to fill in the details. Also it can create a deeper sense of immersion; after all it is exactly as if the object of your fear was there in the room with you. The quality might not be as good as it sometimes uses smaller, less powerful devices with cameras -- having said that we quite good results with iPhones and iPads and we are working on optimising Android devices. This is again bound to get better and better with time.

Your therapist needs some training to use these tools well, which they would not need if they were just getting you to face the object of your fear in real life.

What are the advantages?

The advantages are quite clear. It is much easier to tailor the situations to your needs. It is readily available without having to ask for special permissions to access certain places. Once the therapist is familiar with the technology it will be quicker to set up than to have to go in search for the situation that makes you fearful. It is probably more efficient and, once the therapist has made the investment, the cost to you would be much cheaper than say buying plane tickets just to sit in the chair near the emergency exit just before the plane takes off.

In the case of augmented reality it can even be portable and you can take your exposure with you and practice wherever you go. Our experience with the usage of Stress Free suggests that this is what most people like.

What I think this means

I think there is good evidence that this can work very well, I think it will only get better, and I think that these technologies will make it possible for some people suffering from phobias to access treatment for the first time.

We go one step beyond this trend and give you a virtual therapist that explains how the therapy works and enables you to do it yourself. We use games to make the therapy more appealing and accessible. We also decided to try to invoke a sense of empathy with the thing you fear to help extinguish the fear on your own without needing anyone to egg you on. This is an interesting area of research and our (so far anecdotal) results suggest we might be onto something with our empathy and games angle.

If you are interested you can read a very recent review of the literature by Christiane Eichenberg and Carolin Wolters from University of Cologne, Germany on all the evidence for the use of these technologies in therapy

Do you think it would work for you? Have you used VR or AR in therapy? leave us a comment with your opinion or experience.