Today VR is used mostly for games, with a few 360-degree sightseeing or storytelling experiences thrown in for good measure. But therapy is a field that could eventually have a fruitful marriage with VR. One developer recently launched an educational/simulation experience for the Oculus Rift that's basically therapy for arachnophobes. We took the forward-thinking Fearless for a spin.
While I'm not particularly afraid of spiders, I don't exactly feel a strong urge to hug a tarantula either. After using Fearless, though, I can see how virtual reality – and this app in particular – could help someone whose fear of spiders was intensely magnified.
With Oculus Rift on your head, you find yourself virtually sitting at a desk inside a very standard-looking office. Soon the dulcet Australian baritones of the developer/narrator greet you, introducing you, innocently enough, to a small picture of a cartoon spider hanging on the bulletin board in front of you. When you're ready to proceed, that shifts to a big cartoon spider picture, which is followed by realistic-looking spiders of varying size, number and proximity on the table in front of you. As the developer states on its storefront page, "We do not thrust you directly into a nightmare scenario. This is not a game, and not a horror experience."
Instead it's the old face-your-fears approach, only with the added safety net of all the spiders being made of pixels.
The VR therapy progresses at a gentle and flexible pace, letting you spend as much time in each "level" as you want, before clicking a button to move things along. The narrator's guidance, present throughout, isn't unlike a therapist's, as he encourages you to stretch your comfort zone, with insight into why you may fear spiders in the first place and advice on how to overcome your phobia (including looking up at the ceiling while a creepy-crawly arachnid is scurrying around on the table in front of you).
Exposure therapy experiences like Fearless have the potential to shift VR into something much more than gaming. Few people with intense spider-fears would ever have the resources or inclination to research the quality fear-therapy guidance you get in this app, much less introduce themselves to increasingly creepy spiders in real life. We've already seen similar experiences to help people deal with fears of heights and public speaking. Perhaps someone out there is cooking up simulators/therapies for other anxiety-inducing life situations like first dates, job interviews or tax season.
If you own an Oculus Rift, you can check out Fearless for yourself at the Oculus Store link below. It's a free download, but requires a US$4.99 purchase to unlock the full (relatively short, but repeatable) course.