All posts by Nilesh Jahagirdar

Using Virtual Reality for Phobia Treatment and Therapy


Man hand drowning in the ocean in a sunny day

There is a great scene in one of the Harry Potter books, where the students are taught to deal with a shape-shifting monster. The monster can take the form of your worst fear—whether it is a spider, a giant snake, or a strict teacher that you are terrified of. And the strategy to deal with the monster? The students are taught to cast a spell to make the monster look ridiculous. A spider without legs, a snake that can only meow like a cat, that sort of thing.
I like this scene because the idea of confronting your worst fears and slowly getting better at dealing with them is a well-known method of phobia treatment in psychology. Psychologists, however, do not have convenient access to shape-shifting monsters to use during treatment. They’ve tended to rely on pictures and video clips mostly, but new technological advancements in the field of Virtual Reality are making treatment for phobia easier and more effective.

What is a Phobia?

VR in Enterprise - [x]cube LABS

But let’s first be clear about the concept of a phobia. When someone has a persistent (and often extreme) fear of an object or situation, to such an extent that it causes great anxiety, you can say that this person has a phobia. There are many types of phobias. Specific phobias are phobias relate to objects or situations, causing excessive fear. These include Aerophobia (the fear of flying), Astraphobia (the fear of thunder and lightning), Arachnophobia (the fear of spiders), Acrophobia (the fear of heights), Ophidiophobia, (the fear of snakes), and many others. And then there is also social phobia, that causes extreme social anxiety in social situations, causing people to often avoid socializing and meeting people altogether.
Not all phobias are created equal, of course. If you suffer from Ophidiophobia, for example, it may not disrupt your daily life too much if you live in a city, surrounded by concrete, with little chance of encountering a snake. As long as you avoid the nature documentaries and TV shows about shape-shifting snakes, you should be fine. But fear of spiders or ants? Fear of flying? Hard to lead a normal life if you suffer from one of those. People with such phobias typically seek treatment to overcome their phobia.

Phobia Treatment

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The phobia treatment depicted in the Harry Potter scene, as it happens, is surprisingly accurate. Phobia treatment using therapy focuses on systematic desensitization and gradual relaxation in the face of the phobia, and uses humor in a big way in the course of exposure therapy. The general idea is to expose patients to their fear gradually, teaching them to relax as they encounter their fear, so that familiarity and exposure eventually help them overcome their phobia.
Medication is also sometimes used in treating a patient suffering from a debilitating phobia, but, on its own,  medication typically only helps reduce anxiety, and does not treat the root cause itself.

The Role of Virtual Reality

So what role can a technology like Virtual Reality play in phobia treatment? The answer is fairly straightforward. Even if psychiatrists do not have access to a handy shape-shifting monster, they do have access to a technology that allows the patient to immerse herself in a virtual environment. And the psychiatrist can enter this virtual environment along with the patient.  In this environment, prolonged exposure, desensitization, and progressive relaxation while encountering the phobia can be practiced easily. Strictly speaking, this is how phobia treatment has been done so far anyway, but where psychiatrists relied on pictures and videos of spiders or airplanes earlier, now they can use a far more effective technique of actually immersing their patients in a virtual environment, and bringing them face to face with their fears in a controlled manner. This means that phobias that were a lot harder to treat earlier— Aerophobia, or the fear of flying, for example—can now be treated far more easily, since Virtual Reality can convincingly simulate the experience of flying, of great heights, or of wide open spaces.

augmented reality, gaming, summer holidays, technology and people concept - happy young woman with virtual reality headset or 3d glasses on cereal field with raised hands

And since these virtual environments are interactive and changeable, patients can also use humor effectively. Sitting in a virtual airplane, terrified of flying? Change the music in your airplane to something relaxing, or have soap bubbles fly out of the mounts of your (virtual) fellow passengers when they speak to add some humor to the situation.


Phobia treatment is only one of the many areas of psychotherapy and mental health where Virtual Reality can make a big difference. VR can help with meditation and in fighting depression; it can be applied in all forms of counseling-focused treatment; and there is also research in progress to study how effectively it can help treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), paranoia, and schizophrenia.

The folks in the world of Harry Potter may be able to rely on their wands to combat their worst fears, but we Muggles need to use technology in clever ways to solve our problems.



Immersive Technologies Will Play A Transformative Role

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I watched many sci-fi movies and TV shows as a child. One TV show that made a strong impression is Star Trek, which is about a spaceship from Earth traveling through the galaxy, encountering alien civilizations. The show presents two technologies that I found fascinating. One was teleportation, a form of travel where people are able to leave from one place and instantaneously reappear at another location. The other impressive bit of technology was virtual, immersive reality, seen in many episodes where crew members of the spaceship enter ‘imaginary’ pubs and restaurants. They are even able to enter the universe of a novel that they like, meet and interact with characters from the novel, or even play a character in this fictional world. This pastime is valuable for the crew, as it helps them cope with the monotony of the spaceship.

Back then, I remember thinking that both the technologies are probably impossible. Fortunately, I was only half right. We are no closer to mastering teleportation, but Virtual Reality is something we can already get our hands on. There is a lot of excitement around Immersive Tech as these technologies can be useful in a wide variety of domains, from education and training to fitness and athletics, from industrial design to interior design, from travel and tourism to medicine and healthcare. Let’s take a quick overview of what Immersive Tech is all about.

Immersive Tech

This is a general purpose term used to refer to any technology that blurs the boundary between the physical world around you, and the digital, software-created world that you interact with.

Augmented Reality

As you look at the real world around you, the AR technology looks with you, and enhances your interaction by offering intelligent, context-sensitive information. For example, if you are just taking the picture of a sunset from your mobile phone, there is no Immersive Tech involved there. But what if, as you take the picture, the phone scans the surroundings, and tells you about what trees and flowers are in the picture?

Augmented Reality often uses special glasses that you can wear. These allow you to see normally, but they have a little computer and a projection system inside them so that, based on what you are seeing, the AR glasses can superimpose additional information related to what you are looking at. AR can work without glasses too. For example, instead of going to a museum and leafing through a booklet, as you walk around, you could simply turn on your mobile phone camera and the phone-if it has appropriate AR software installed-recognizes where you are and superimposes relevant information onto the screen. Google Glass, now discontinued, was an AR device. Currently, the most exciting AR device is Hololens by Microsoft.

Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality While AR refers to ‘augmenting’ the reality of our physical world, VR refers to creating a digital reality that can-temporarily-completely replace our physical reality. To experience VR you need to put on a specially designed device called HMD over your eyes, and this device completely blocks your view of the world around you. Instead, you see a digital world, which could be anything-a farm, an alien spaceship, or a theme park. VR is really a combination or two things: A powerful computer that can run VR software, and an HMD (a device rather like thick glasses) that connects with this computer to create-using clever but simple optics-a 360-degree, immersive view. Renowned companies such as Facebook, Google, HTC, Sony, and many others now offer VR devices, and corresponding software to purchase and download new VR apps.

The clever part with VR is that these systems have sensors that register your physical movement and react accordingly. So if I were to look up while wearing a VR device, inside my simulated reality too my avatar would look up and maybe see the sky. This goes for walking as well as hand movements, which is how the immersive, 360-degree world becomes a ‘reality’ for us.