A hostile virtual boardroom greets a speaker in a public speaking session.

Credit: Courtesy The Speech Improvement Co.

Virtual Reality Embraces The Real-World

March 12, 2014

Virtual reality had its heyday in video games and TV in the mid-90s before fizzling out of the mainstream. But with the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset sending ripples throughout the tech and gaming community at this year’s SXSW, virtual reality is poised to make a comeback-- and some local places are using it in ways that might surprise you.

At the Speech Improvement Co. in Brookline, people seek help to address a common phobia: the fear of public speaking.

"The reason the fear of speaking is so widespread around the world is that it’s unique for different people," said the company's president, Ethan Becker.

And it’s the reason why you can’t just go in and say, "Picture them all in underwear."

Becker had a video game developer create a 3-D animated boardroom and auditorium where clients can make mistakes without any pesky consequences. The only way to get there is by strapping on a head-mounted display while Becker controls what happens on his laptop. He can have someone take a phone call in the middle of your presentation, or get up angrily and walk out of the room.

"These are common things that help recreate the anxiety, so as a coach I can sit down with that person and say time out, freeze life, and we can immediately talk about that anxiety in that moment," Becker said.

Using virtual reality to address phobias isn’t new. There was a small movement in the mid-'90s but it was expensive — carving itself out as a niche form of therapy. But these days, the graphics are better and cheaper to make. And with more affordable headsets like the upcoming Oculus Rift, virtual reality will be more accessible. Though some caution that it should be used sparingly.

"It is important to note that we don’t want virtual reality to be used as a safety net," said Donna Pincus a psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University.

"Whenever possible, we really want a patient immersed in the real world situation so they could have true exposure to their actual fears," Pincus said. "If a patient is afraid of dogs, using virtual reality to look at dogs or touch virtual dogs would not be nearly as good as having them really engage with touching a real dog, having a dog, petting a dog, having a dog jump up and lick their hand, things like that."

But some scenarios are really hard to recreate, like walking into a room filled with spiders, stepping onto an airplane, or driving through war-torn Iraq. Skip Rizzo, the director of medical virtual reality at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, has created virtual reality-based exposure therapy to help veterans with post-traumatic stress recall traumatic experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"There’s no doubt in my mind that this technology will have a significant impact on mental health, rehabilitation, medicine, all the clinical areas of relevance where there is great need," he said  "Whether it’s education or therapy or general social skills interaction, the development of virtual human technology is going to be the next big thing," Rizzo said.

Rizzo said this is just the beginning of a resurgence. That doesn’t surprise Becker.

"The virtual reality system allows us to help a part of the population that cannot be helped in any other way," he said.

And there’s nothing virtual about that reality.

Watch Emily Rooney try Oculus Rift on Greater Boston:

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