Researchers from the University of Washington (U of W) have successfully used virtual reality to reduce fear from spiders, according to this news release and to this more detailed VR Therapy Project webpage.
Researchers at the U of W's Human Interface Technology (HIT) Lab measured aversion and anxiety responses of students, some of whom had a clinical phobia of spiders, before and after undergoing VR therapy. During the therapy, some of the subjects touched a realistic model of a large spider while grasping a virtual one. Those participants were able to come twice as close to a real spider after completing three therapy sessions, and reported a greater decrease in anxiety during treatment, than those who underwent VR therapy alone.
"This is significant for VR therapy," according to Hunter Hoffman, research scientist at the HIT Lab and lead author on the study. "It indicates that tactile augmentation reinforces all aspects of the virtual environment. If you introduce touch for one aspect, people seem to transfer that sense of reality to the rest of the virtual world. It's an easy and cost-effective way to make the VR treatment program more effective.
Before starting the study, the researchers interviewed 400 students about their level of spider phobia. Then, they selected 36 students with strong reactions to spiders.
The participants were then randomly assigned to three groups: one that received VR therapy alone, one that received VR therapy with the addition of touch, and one that received no therapy at all.
The VR therapy groups went through three sessions in a virtual space dubbed "SpiderWorld." After each session, students rated how real the experience seemed.
Here is an image of what patients see (in 3-D) in SpiderWorld. You can see the cyberhand as they grab a wiggly legged virtual tarantula (Credit: Hunter Hoffman, University of Washington).
And this seems very efficient.
On average during post-therapy tests, participants in the VR-only group who approached to within 5 feet of the living tarantula before treatment were able to close that distance to 2.5 feet afterward. But those who experienced touch with the VR therapy were able to come to within six inches of the tarantula. In addition, their anxiety level was significantly lower than the VR-only group.
If some researchers in Paris want to do the same study for snakes, please note I'll be a volunteer.
Sources: University of Washington, via Science Daily, October 30, 2003; Human Interface Technology Lab, University of Washington
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