VR Is Revolutionizing Therapy. Why Aren’t More People Using It?

Sam Stokes, a New Zealand-based gross sales supervisor, is not often an anxious individual. However there’s one factor that, as he places it, scared the shit out of him: needles. 

His aversion was extreme sufficient to carry him again from getting routine assessments. Stokes, now 40, remembers an occasion in his 20s when he merely could not convey himself to get a blood take a look at. He as soon as even drove to the testing facility to get his blood drawn, however could not observe by way of with it. His companion (now spouse) ultimately satisfied him to get the take a look at, however he remembers it as one in every of “essentially the most horrific” experiences he is had. 

“I form of handed out a bit of bit alongside the best way, and was sweaty and clammy and all that form of stuff,” he stated. “I simply completely hated the entire expertise.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, he knew he could not let his needle phobia maintain him again. Even watching the information grew to become troublesome, as stations usually ran tales about vaccine developments.

“Each third story was a picture of a needle, and that simply freaked me out,” he stated.

However by the point Stokes grew to become eligible to get the vaccine, he did not really feel a pinch of tension. No clammy palms, no chilly sweats. Nothing.

Stokes overcame his phobia by way of digital actuality, a buzzy know-how that business giants like Meta and Sony imagine could possibly be the way forward for gaming and on-line socializing. With Apple anticipated to announce its first headset this yr, 2023 could possibly be a landmark second for the know-how. 


The concept of utilizing digital actuality to ease nervousness and overcome phobias is not new; it has been studied because the Nineties. The arrival of contemporary VR headsets like the unique Oculus Rift and HTC Vive in 2016 reignited conversations about how the know-how may enhance psychological well being care. 

Division of Psychiatry, College of Oxford

However in 2023, regardless of the pandemic shining a highlight on stress, nervousness and burnout, it seems like we’re nonetheless speaking about VR’s potential versus its influence. We’re nonetheless removed from a world through which strapping on a VR headset to beat your worry of crowds is as widespread as calling your therapist earlier than a subway commute. And it is not due to technological shortcomings. Somewhat, excessive prices, VR’s sluggish adoption and a lack of knowledge about VR remedy are accountable. 

“I really thought we might be farther alongside by now,” stated Dr. Barbara Rothbaum, affiliate vice chair of medical analysis on the Emory College College of Drugs, who performed a examine revealed in 1995 analyzing how VR could possibly be utilized in psychotherapy. “I believed that extra individuals could be utilizing it for therapeutic interventions.”

Stokes, for instance, solely tried it as a result of he noticed a TV information section a few examine being performed by the College of Otago in Christchurch, New Zealand, and oVRcome, maker of the same-named VR app meant for addressing phobias.

“Not like perhaps another fears, I had an finish date,” Stokes stated. “I knew that I needed to get a COVID vaccination. So I knew that this was my probability.”

The evolution of VR

Google Cardboard

Getty Pictures

In 2023, you may connect a Google Cardboard headset to your cell phone for lower than $20 to expertise VR. It definitely wasn’t like that when Rothbaum and her colleagues have been engaged on their examine, which was revealed within the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1995. Researching whether or not VR could be an efficient strategy to deal with a worry of heights by way of publicity remedy required a $150,000 pc and a headset that price round $16,000 again then, in keeping with Rothbaum. 

That pc wanted to be arrange in a separate room not solely due to its measurement, but additionally so it could possibly be stored cool, she says. Whereas the affected person wore a head-mounted show in a small room with Rothbaum, she’d use an intercom to speak with a graduate scholar working the pc.  

“It was a really large operation,” she stated.

Since discovering a digital actuality headset wasn’t simple within the Nineties, Rothbaum apprehensive that she would not be capable of proceed her analysis when one in every of her favourite fashions was discontinued. 

“I believed, nicely, that is the top,” she stated. “That is the top of our work.”  

Fortunately, that did not occur. The market was small, however different headsets started to crop up, usually at decrease costs. Rothbaum has collected so many of those headsets over time that she has a museumlike show case in her house workplace crammed with them. 

“It was primarily the decision,” stated Rothbaum, when requested why she most well-liked some headsets over others. “But in addition, if it was not comfy for a affected person to put on for half-hour, then that was going to be onerous to make use of.”

As we speak’s VR headsets nonetheless have usability problems with their very own, equivalent to brief battery life and restricted compatibility with prescription glasses. However there isn’t any denying they’ve come a great distance from the system Rothbaum used within the ’90s. Fb father or mother firm Meta at present dominates the digital actuality area, with 81% of the market as of the fourth quarter of 2022, in keeping with Counterpoint Analysis. 

Its Quest 2 headset prices $400 and would not require an exterior computing system. That alone represents a big leap even from 2016-era headsets just like the first-generation Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, each of which needed to be tethered to highly effective computer systems to gasoline video games and apps. Sony additionally simply launched the $550 PlayStation VR 2, which boasts a vivid show, haptics and eye monitoring know-how however should be tethered to a PlayStation 5. 

An increase in demand for immersive at-home leisure in the course of the pandemic, mixed with the hype surrounding the metaverse, has resulted in additional consideration being paid to digital actuality.

“It is nonetheless going to be most likely a decade out earlier than now we have a completely realized metaverse,” stated Ramon Llamas, a analysis director for market analysis agency The Worldwide Knowledge Company. “However within the meantime, we’ll have a number of enjoyable and … attention-grabbing improvements coming alongside for VR.”  

Attempting VR remedy

Many research and analysis papers have been revealed since Rothbaum’s. A scoping evaluation from 2021 examined 19 research that used digital actuality publicity remedy to handle particular phobias. Twelve reported that VR was efficient at lowering nervousness.

It is simple to know why, when you strive it for your self. That is why I requested Dr. Howard Gurr, a New York-based psychologist who presents digital actuality remedy, to exhibit the software program he makes use of along with his purchasers, which is offered by an organization referred to as Amelia Digital Care.

After launching the app and putting my telephone within the VR headset, I used to be transported to what would often be a really anxiety-inducing scenario for me: getting behind the wheel. I have been dwelling in New York Metropolis for greater than a decade, which suggests I additionally have not pushed a automobile in about 10 years. 

I’ve all the time been a nervous driver, so dwelling within the metropolis has felt liberating, since I can depend on public transportation and Uber to get round simply. However simply as Stokes needed to confront his phobia to get vaccinated towards COVID-19, I will have to handle mine if I wish to purchase a home within the suburbs with my husband and begin a household. 

Driving Enviornment

Amelia Digital Care

Hitting the highway nearly is not any substitute for the true factor; my simulation was animated, and I did not have a bodily steering wheel or gasoline pedal. There was no manner for me to speed up, brake or select when to merge into a unique lane. I felt extra like I used to be alongside for the journey than in management, nevertheless it felt immersive sufficient to impress some nervous reactions.

For instance, I skilled that acquainted pang in my abdomen once I seen a truck approaching in my facet mirror. Though I wasn’t in an actual automobile, I felt compelled to maintain my eyes fixated on the highway in entrance of me.

I did not even see the opposite digital passengers within the again seat till a couple of minutes into the simulation, as a result of I used to be so centered on the freeway. The pouring rain and sounds of vehicles and automobiles zipping by virtually made me overlook I used to be sitting in my workplace, although it did not fairly really feel like I used to be behind the wheel both.

My expertise with Gurr was administered remotely on a headset that prices lower than $20 and that used my smartphone because the engine. The aim behind a setup like that is to make the know-how as reasonably priced and accessible as potential. 

However extra strong setups additionally exist, such because the one utilized by Dr. Joseph Hirsch, a New York-based psychologist who’s revealed analysis papers on digital actuality remedy within the American Journal of Scientific Hypnosis. He tells me he is used a vibrating platform with audio system to extra precisely simulate the sensation of turbulence when working with sufferers who’re afraid of flying.

Concern Of Heights Setting, Amelia Digital Care

Amelia Digital Care

Not simply phobias 

Treating phobias looks like a pure software for digital actuality. Boarding a digital airplane or staring down from the highest of a digital skyscraper is way more vivid than imagining it. Gurr says this stage of element and immersion hurries up the method of overcoming a phobia.

“I may see sufferers [and after] seven, eight or 9 classes, they’re achieved,” he stated. “You may’t do this in conventional remedy.”

After which there are circumstances the place digital actuality supplies a way of escapism or a brand new sort of consolation zone. Monet Goldman, a licensed marriage and household therapist primarily based in California who presents VR remedy, understands this higher than most. 

He remembers one session in early 2022 when digital actuality was notably impactful. He was counseling a toddler over a video name who had fully shut down and was giving just one phrase solutions. However that modified as soon as Goldman and the kid started enjoying a sport in VR. Goldman says he was “fully completely different.”

“These are the issues he is the very best on this planet at, and now he will get to disclose that,” Goldman stated. “He will get to show me that, and I get to witness this. And it form of helps their self-worth, their sense of accomplishment.”

Even those that are well-versed in VR are discovering new methods to make use of it as a stress reliever. Anais Riley, higher identified by her alias Naysy, who’s garnered tens of millions of followers throughout TikTok, YouTube and Twitch, has used the favored VR dance sport Beat Saber to deal with work-related nervousness. It offered simply what Riley wanted to fight her stressors: bodily train, a way of accomplishment, escape from the true world and the chance to faucet into her childhood pursuits of music and dance. 

Beat Saber VR

Youtuber Naysy

“I actually was simply loving enjoying the sport and seeing myself get higher,” she stated. 

However digital actuality is not a magic wand for making nervousness and phobias disappear. It is merely one other useful resource therapists can use when offering publicity remedy, a way that helps individuals overcome fears by exposing them to phobia-inducing stimuli in a protected atmosphere.  

Rothbaum likens it to utilizing an actual elevator to assist deal with a affected person’s worry of elevators. “I am educated in publicity remedy, and that elevator, I’ll use it another way for each completely different affected person,” she stated. “So you recognize, it is only a software. It isn’t elevator remedy.” 

VR continues to be ready for its breakout second

The largest drawback is that folks merely aren’t utilizing VR frequently. If VR headsets have been almost as ubiquitous as smartphones, therapists would seemingly be lining as much as discover methods to include them into their follow. However proper now they’ve little incentive to study or put money into VR if their purchasers aren’t utilizing it.  

“The bottleneck has all the time been the price,” says Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo, analysis professor on the College of Southern California’s Division of Psychiatry and College of Gerontology.

Shipments of VR and AR headsets are estimated to have reached 9.7 million models globally in 2022, in keeping with statistics from IDC. To place that quantity in perspective, 300.3 million smartphones have been shipped worldwide within the fourth quarter of 2022 alone, in keeping with IDC, though the market skilled its largest ever single quarter decline.

The arrival of Apple’s long-rumored headset, which may debut in June, in keeping with Bloomberg, could assist usher in that breakout second for VR. The top-mounted pc will seemingly be costly; Bloomberg reviews it may price round $3,000. However Apple’s historical past of popularizing new applied sciences just like the smartphone, pill and smartwatch have set the expectation that it may do the identical for digital actuality headsets.

“Apple has a manner of driving the tide that lifts all boats,” stated Llamas. “It brings consideration, and it brings legitimacy to most of the markets that it enters. And I do not suppose VR will likely be completely different.”

It is troublesome to inform what number of therapists and psychological well being professionals at present supply VR companies, however there’s some information that may present a clue. Amelia Digital Care, which offered the software program I used throughout my expertise, has been used to assist deal with greater than 20,000 sufferers, says founder Xavier Palomer. The software program is utilized by greater than 2,000 psychological well being professionals around the globe, in keeping with an organization press launch.

Adam Hutchinson, founding father of oVRcome, which offered the software program used within the medical trial Stokes participated in, says his applications have been utilized in greater than 30 nations. 

Gurr additionally maintains an off-the-cuff listing of therapists who supply VR companies. Roughly 60 practitioners are listed on his web site, the vast majority of whom are positioned within the US, the place psychologists sometimes want to satisfy state-specific licensing necessities. The Affiliation for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies’ listing lists 40 VR-equipped therapists.

These numbers pale compared to the almost 700,000 behavioral well being specialists in the US alone, in keeping with information from The George Washington College’s Behavioral Well being Workforce Tracker. Of that whole, 539,714 are counselors and therapists. 

“Digital actuality, though it’s efficient, continues to be in its infancy,” stated Gurr. “And clinicians are form of reluctant to select up a know-how that both they do not perceive or weren’t educated in.”

Except for VR being comparatively scarce, there’s additionally the educational curve challenge. Psychological well being professionals should take the time to know digital actuality and discover ways to apply it to their sufferers’ or purchasers’ wants. 

Even somebody like Goldman, who grew up enjoying video video games and fondly remembers his Gameboy, practices VR video games on his personal time in order that he can correctly have interaction along with his purchasers.

“[There’s] a number of, I assume you can say, coaching and training exterior of the sport itself,” Goldman stated.


Robert Rodriguez

The businesses making an attempt to make VR remedy extra fashionable

Hutchinson acknowledges that it could be fairly a while earlier than most people — together with therapists — adopts VR frequently. That is why he started with the system most individuals already depend on daily: the smartphone. Although oVRcome additionally supplies instruments that therapists can incorporate into their follow, the corporate began by distributing VR remedy applications developed by medical psychologists that anybody can use with no therapists’ supervision.  

“That was the aim with oVRcome, was to make remedy for these nervousness issues utilizing digital actuality publicity remedy simpler to entry and much more reasonably priced,” Hutchinson stated. 

Contributors are uncovered to a low-anxiety digital atmosphere when this system begins and step by step progress to extra direct circumstances. In Stokes’ case, for instance, one of many first phases put him exterior a digital vaccination tent, whereas the ultimate session had him sitting with a nurse able to administer an injection. 

“We actually needed to mannequin how publicity remedy was offered within the clinic,” Hutchinson stated.


Amelia’s software program, which I used throughout my session with Gurr, is designed for use beneath the supervision of a psychological well being skilled. The corporate’s choices embrace a VR package that comes with a headset and an electrodermal response sensor for measuring a affected person’s sweat response, a VR software program platform with entry to greater than 100 digital simulations and an app for administering VR remedy remotely. The corporate additionally supplies coaching and help supplies like an introduction course, tutorials, manuals and advertising and marketing guides. 

Xavier Palomer, the founding father of Amelia, got here up with the concept round 2013 as a result of his pal was afraid of flying. The corporate was based in 2014, however Palomer says it hit an inflection level round late 2016, early 2017 as VR {hardware} just like the Samsung Gear VR grew to become extra fashionable. The pandemic additionally generated extra consciousness round psychological well being and self care.

“We’re extra open to speak about it,” stated Palomer. “To search for options, to really ask for assist.” 

In line with Rothbaum, typical knowledge says it takes 20 years from when a examine comes out for that know-how to make its manner into public use. If that holds true, VR ought to’ve already hit that time. However Gurr sees issues a bit of in a different way. That timer did not begin in 1995 when Rothbaum and her colleagues revealed their examine. It started when trendy VR headsets grew to become cheaper and extra broadly obtainable.

“Though digital actuality has been round for a very long time, I am beginning the clock at 2015,” he stated. “Which suggests we’re solely in there for seven or eight years.” 

Though Stokes was aware of VR, he by no means thought of utilizing it to handle his phobia of needles till he got here throughout the oVRcome examine. In reality, he wasn’t going to hunt assist for his phobia in any respect. However now the considered getting a vaccine or a blood take a look at would not hassle him within the slightest. 

“If I had a needle sitting on my desk proper now, I might be fully comfy,” he stated. “It is really exceptional.”


Brandon Douglas

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