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A new virtual reality system will soon be able to help patients learn to deal with their social phobia. The virtual reality system, which was developed at TU Delft, will officially be put into use by the University of Amsterdam’s (UvA) Clinical Psychology Department on Thursday 27 October.

A new virtual reality system will soon be able to help patients learn to deal with their social phobia. The system allows them to practise in a variety of situations, from asking for directions to going on a blind date, from the ‘safety’ of a personal computer. Avatars they encounter in the program’s virtual world respond, just as real people. The virtual reality system, which was developed at TU Delft, will will officially be put into use by the University of Amsterdam’s (UvA) Clinical Psychology Department on Thursday 27 October.

Known as the Delft Remote Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy system (DRVRET), the approach follows on previous virtual environments developed at TU Delft to tackle phobias by simulating flying in an airplane, for example, or interacting in a virtual bar.

Psychologists at the UvA elaborated a range of scenarios to support the treatment therapy – with virtual situations that range from patients’ having to ask for directions to going on a job interview, or going on a blind date. Therapists actively direct the scenarios depending on how a patient behaves. They can choose from a ‘friendly’ course, for example, but equally for one in which the avatars are less friendly. Additionally, the system registers physical signals that indicate levels of anxiety, such as perspiration and heart rate.

As UvA professor Paul Emmelkamp explains, ‘Practise is absolutely essential for people with a social phobia. For most, even just ordinary role play is too scary to consider. Virtual reality lowers that threshold’.

Interactive avatars

'This current system has two important new features’, explains TU Delft’s Willem-Paul Brinkman. ‘In it, patients can actually talk with the avatars – and they talk back. It is also what’s known as a telesystem, meaning the patient and therapist can be at different locations.’

‘The point is to help people suffering from social phobias’, Brinkman continues. ‘These are people who have extreme difficulty in particular social situations. Practising in a safe virtual environment with avatars can help. Plus, observing a patient’s behaviour during that practise can help the therapist gain greater insight into the problem.’

While future forms of the virtual therapy may be fully automated, for now the therapist remains in control. Initial results from the first system are expected in two years.