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How Virtual Reality Can Curb Your Social Anxiety

A British company has begun projecting socially anxious clients into awkward, ultra-realistic social situations—all in the hopes that they’ll become desensitized to their fear of interaction.

How Virtual Reality Can Curb Your Social Anxiety

Simulation games, from dating sims to The Sims, have let gamers play God with tiny interpersonal relationships for years, but these have always been scripted, cartoony interactions—not the most realistic way to hang out. But UK company Xenodu wants to change that: With a camera and a little software, clients are put into scripted scenes virtual social scenes, complete with all the prompts and pauses—in the hopes it will help them with social anxiety in the real world.

Here’s how it works. Using a Microsoft Kinect or Asus Xtion Pro Live camera, Xenodu’s software extracts patients from their background and inserts them into a virtual reality milieu of their choice—in this case, into filmed conversations. Since the patient is watching themselves projected into the interaction, the simulation provokes a subtle out-of-body tone—but that’s the idea. As part of a study with researchers at the University of East Anglia who helped develop the technology, the experience is meant to force participants to examine a common belief of the socially anxious: That they don’t have anything to say. The patients are put into all sorts of different conversational scenarios, from friendly to hostile, encouraged to maintain eye contact. According to the research paper:

The main benefits of using these virtual environments in therapy was that it helped participants notice and change anxious behaviors in a safe, controlled environment which could be rehearsed over and over again. Participants were found to drop safety behaviors and take greater social risks. And while realistic to an extent, the 'fake' feeling of staged scenarios in itself proved to be a virtue.

This process—desensitizing patients to stress triggers by having them repeating an experience—is not new to the digital realm. Even other social anxiety treatments in recent years have used video game-esque social simulations. But Xenodu’s innovation is to harness cutting-edge tech to immerse patients in photorealistic simulations—a daring challenge for socially anxious people.

Luckily, there is a precedent for successful desensitizing-through-simulation therapy. Since the mid-2000s, military therapists treating PTSD have been experimenting with battle-simulating video games to intentionally trigger stress cues. This "exposure therapy" uses a virtual reality headset to pipe in visual and audio stimuli to the patient, typically repeating, as close as possible, the moment that trigger’s the patient’s PTSD. Developed by Virtually Better, "Virtual Iraq" is built on circa-2005 video game "Full Spectrum Warrior" with an admin-interface for therapists to drop in environmental effects, from smoke to roadside bombs, in catering the simulation to the patient’s experience.

Both therapies are built to approach realism while maintaining the healthy distance of virtuality—a controllable simulation that allows patients to submerge themselves in anxiety-inducing situations under therapist supervision. VR isn’t just for gaming, it seems, but also the game of life.

[Image: Flickr user Agustín Ruiz]