A New Way for Therapists to Get Inside Heads: Virtual Reality

The service is also designed to provide treatment in other ways, like taking patients to the top of a virtual skyscraper so they can face a fear of heights or to a virtual bar so they can address an alcohol addiction.

Backed by the venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, Limbix is less than a year old. The creators of its new service, including its chief executive and co-founder, Benjamin Lewis, worked in the seminal virtual reality efforts at Google and Facebook.

The hardware and software they are working with is still very young, but Limbix builds on more than two decades of research and clinical trials involving virtual reality and exposure therapy. At a time when much-hyped headsets like the Daydream and Facebook’s Oculus are still struggling to find a wide audience in the world of gaming — let alone other markets — psychology is an area where technology and medical experts believe this technology can be a benefit.

As far back as the mid-1990s, clinical trials showed that this kind of technology could help treat phobias and other conditions, like post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Virtual reality cameras at Limbix. The creators of the service worked on virtual reality efforts at Facebook and Google.

Credit
Jason Henry for The New York Times

Traditionally, psychologists have treated such conditions by helping patients imagine they are facing a fear, mentally creating a situation where they can address their anxieties. Virtual reality takes this a step further.

“We feel pretty confident that exposure therapy using V.R. can supplement what a patient’s imagination alone can do,” said Skip Rizzo, a clinical psychologist at the University of Southern California who has explored such technology over the past 20 years.

Barbara Rothbaum helped pioneer the practice at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, and her work spawned a company called Virtually Better, which has long offered virtual reality exposure therapy tools to some doctors and hospitals through an older breed of headset. According to one clinical trial she helped build, virtual reality was just as effective as trips to airports in treating the fear of flying, with 90 percent of patients eventually conquering their anxieties.

Such technology has also been effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans. Unlike…

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