A Therapeutic VR for Driving Phobias
Researchers at The University of Manchester have recruited volunteers with a variety of driving phobias to test whether virtual reality can be used alongside conventional psychological therapies to help tackle their fears. Impressively they are including full immersion VR in the trials.
Virtual Reality Exposure Treatment or VRET is the name of the programme, somewhat bizarrely as there are many dozens of programmes that already use this monkier. It involves a head mounted display fitted over the patient's eyes and ears, immersing their sight and sound totally within the VR. There they find themselves in the driver's seat of a car, on a virtual read, part of an expansive cityscape.
Every driving challenge is presented, And the roads are populated by a large number of AI controlled cars. Whatever the individual's personal phobia might be, there is a section of the city geared for that. Plus, if they need to drive elsewhere to calm down, it accommodates that too.
The system doesn't actually reproduce the mechanics of the car; the steering wheel is strapped to the left hand, whilst a blood oxygen sensor is attached to the right. Patients sit back in a chair for the process.
"Phobias may develop from a real-life event but the levels of anxiety and avoidance that results becomes wholly disproportionate to the incident that led to the phobia and can become a major disruption to the way people lead their lives," said Caroline Williams, who will be carrying out the research in Manchester's School of Psychological Sciences.
"A fear of driving, whether it has developed following a road traffic accident or for other reasons, can escalate into a situation where individuals are too scared to drive at all.
"The advantage of using VRET is that it can be carried out in a safe environment rather than on real roads, which in extreme cases, could put the volunteers, therapists and possibly other road-users at risk through the adoption of defensive driving behaviours, such as braking harder or going slow on motorways, by the phobic subject. It also helps the person with a phobia to tolerate the level of exposure to the fear as it is tightly controlled."
The work is supported by the European Union IST Programme (Project: INTREPID - A Virtual Reality Intelligent Multi-sensor Wearable System for Phobias' Treatment - IST-2002-507464).