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Researchers Develop A New Virtual Reality App That Can Help Overcome Fear of Heights

Researchers Develop A New Virtual Reality App That Can Help Overcome Fear of Heights
A researchers’ team at the University of Basel have recently developed a smartphone-based virtual reality application that can potentially lessen acrophobia. Currently, the researchers are conducting a clinical trial of the app to determine its efficacy. The participants for the said trial who underwent training session for four hours in total using the app have reportedly shown the training has significantly improved their capability of handling real high-altitude situations.

Fear of heights or acrophobia is a very common phenomenon. Around 5% of the general population is found to experience an enervating fear and discomfort in high-altitude circumstances. The affected people rarely take the advantage of treatment options available today, one of the major reasons being the limitation of recreating the actual height situations. To aid the treatment process, the research team led by Professor Dominique de Quervain has developed Eyesight— a smartphone-based VR exposure therapy app. Eyesight utilizes 360° images of actual locations captured using drones and creates realistic height situations. People can use this app easily on their smartphones along with a special VR headset.

Therapy from the comfort of your living room
Therapy from the comfort of your living room

Gradually raising the height 

During the virtual reality training process, users are directed to stand on elevated platforms initially raised one meter above the ground. Giving them a certain period to acclimatize themselves, the platform rises automatically. The distance of the platform is raised slowly but steadily without increasing the user’s level of fear.

The efficacy of this method is studied by the researchers in a randomized, controlled trial and the results are published in the NPJ Digital Medicine journal. A total of fifty subjects with acrophobia participated in the trial, with some of them completing the four-hour training program using the Eyesight app and the rest being assigned to the control group. During the training, the participants ascended virtually the Uetliberg lookout tower near Zurich to the extent their limitations allowed them. The researchers then evaluated the results of 25 subjects from the control group and 22 from the training group. Data shows those who have completed the training exhibit less fear and are able to reach near the top. Thus, the efficacy of the VR app is deemed comparable to that of exposure therapy.

Therapy from the comfort of your living room

Researchers were already studying the efficacy of virtual reality in treating acrophobia for almost two decades. The current results indicate that the recurrent use of a mobile-based VR exposure therapy can significantly improve the subjective behavior in height situations. People suffering from mild acrophobia will be able to download the app soon and complete the free training sessions on their own. However, researchers recommend that those who have severe acrophobia should use the app under the supervision of professionals.

The current research is one among many ongoing projects at the Transfaculty Research Platform for Molecular and Cognitive Neurosciences, headed by Professor Dominique de Quervain and Professor Andreas Papassotiropoulos. The mission of their project is to improve mental disorder treatments using advanced technology and make them widely available for everyone.

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