Virtual Reality Program Helps Treat Mental Health Problems

December 1, 2013

by Diane Atwood

diane-atwoodImagine for a mo­ment that just the thought of going to an event and meeting new people causes such in­tense anxiety you feel as if you might be having a heart attack. Such a reaction is usually caused by a form of social anxiety – a fairly common phenomenon.

Xenodu, a company based in Watford, England, has developed virtual imaging technology with the potential to cure people of their social anxieties and other conditions simply by inserting them into a vir­tual reality environment. Like at­tending a virtual meeting, you might surmise. Not really.

Not the same as a virtual meeting

Paul Strickland, who founded Xenodu in 2007, says virtual meet­ings use a first-person approach in which you interact with someone who is facing you on the computer screen or television monitor. Xenodu’s software takes a third-person approach. “The patients can see an image of themselves on the screen interacting with virtual char­acters also on the screen,” Strickland explains. “They are immersed in the virtual environment, but they are also observing from a safe distance.”

Strickland’s company created and videotaped more than 100 different scenarios based on real-life situations that people with social anxiety might find challenging. For example, being introduced to or interacting with other people, eating or working in front of others, interviewing for a new job, riding public transporta­tion, or giving a presentation. Pro­fessional actors working from carefully crafted scripts were taped in a blue screen studio (where the blue background can be replaced by a video or a computer animation), making it possible to capture subtle nuances in body language and com­munication. The virtual environ­ment system uses video capture to project the individual’s life-size image onto whatever pre-taped scenario the person is watching on the monitor or computer screen.

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