Virtual reality made its name in the gaming industry, but the technology was soon applied to training by entrepreneurs and corporations alike – both looking to find greater efficiency in their programmes. It’s the medical sector, however, that is now tuning in to the benefits of the virtual world.

Academics at Oxford University have recently concluded a study which found that 3 out of every 4 patients could overcome their serious phobia of heights with the help of virtual reality technology.

The researchers encouraged participants to step into the VR environment where they were coached through a series of height-related challenges, such as rescuing a cat or crossing a rope bridge at the top of a 10-storey building.

The academics found the approach to be highly effective, with participants who had struggled with a fear of heights for many years finding irrational fears placated within just hours of strapping on the VR headset.

Additionally, with participants benefiting from a virtual coach, no human therapist was required in order to achieve the remarkable results.

“In day-to-day life I’m much less averse to edges, and steps, and heights,” explained one participant.

“When I’ve always got anxious about an edge I could feel the adrenaline in my legs that fight/flight thing; that’s not happening as much now…I feel as if I’m making enormous progress, and feel very happy with what I’ve gained.”

Another explained that he was now able to feel relaxed while looking over the balcony at the local shopping center, something that would have been impossible for him before the VR treatment.

An irrational fear of heights, or acrophobia, is the most common phobia with 5% of the population clinically diagnosed and 20% of the population experiencing some difficulty.

The study was based on data collected from 100 volunteers who each had a formal diagnosis of acrophobia and had suffered with it for 30 years, on average. Half of the volunteers were treated with VR, though two participants were unable to complete the treatment because they found it so challenging.

Treatment took the form of six 30-minute long sessions in VR, spaced over a two week period. A VR “coach” would encourage participants to explain the details of their phobia, as well as offering some information on the psychology of phobias.

After meeting the virtual coach, participants were challenged to enter a virtual building, with each of it’s 10 floors presenting a height-related challenge. One challenge might be to simply stand near the edge of a platform, while dropping a ball over the edge would represent a level up, in terms of difficulty. Eventually, participants were able to work up to crossing a large gap on a rope bridge.

After undergoing the experimental treatment programme, 69% of participants were no longer classified as clinically phobic.

The team from Oxford claim that the positive results of this first trial suggest that VR-powered therapy has potential, not just for helping patients with a fear of heights, but with many other mental health conditions. Furthermore, the efficacy of this type of treatment could help to alleviate workload on over-stretched health services.

“We need a greater number of skilled therapists, not fewer, but to meet the large demand for mental health treatment we also require powerful technological solutions,” explained Professor Daniel Freeman, the author of the study published in The Lancet medical journal.

“As seen in our clinical trial, virtual reality treatments have the potential to be effective, and faster and more appealing for many patients than traditional face-to-face therapies.”

This type of therapy not only appears to be effective, but is also reasonably inexpensive. There is an upfront investment to be made in the creation of the VR experience, which requires programmers, designers, actors and therapists to create. However, once the therapeutic simulation has been created, it could be easily distributed online and replicated widely on relatively inexpensive VR setups.

It’s incredibly exciting to see virtual reality being used to help people in need and it seems likely that we’ll see VR put to this use more widely as further research becomes available and as the public become familiar with the technology.

However, Dr Mark Hayward of the University of Sussex reminds us that while the findings are promising, with more “serious mental health disorders like psychosis, these treatments still require a professional therapist’s involvement”.