Virtual Reality Room to Treat Psychological Disorders

A $6 million virtual reality "immersive room" that's been constructed in a cyberpsychology lab in Canada will be used to treat patients with everything from air-travel phobias to gambling addictions to eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The innovative, high-tech psychotherapeutic tool is presided over by Stéphane Bouchard, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Clinical Cyberpsychology and is co-founder of the cyberpsychology lab at the Université du Québec en Outaouais in Gatineau, Quebec. Bouchard's virtual reality room is the only one of the 10 in the world devoted exclusively to clinical psychology.

The room is built of six black walls - which are actually screens - with a projector in each of the walls that delivers images to the opposite wall, and six networked computers, one to run each of the projectors. Once the software has been given its final tweaks, patients will be able to navigate through highly realistic virtual environments with a hand-held apparatus.

The 3-D goggles they wear will track their movements, letting the computers know how to make the appropriate adjustments in the images on the walls. Eight years ago, all Bouchard had to work with were virtual reality goggles, or head-mounted displays, which beam images directly into a patient's eyes. The strength of this technology is that it was transportable and relatively affordable.

It provided, however, only a narrow field of view and didn't allow users to see their bodies in virtual surroundings. "The primary strengths [of the immersive room] are that you are able to deliver the exposure therapy very effectively and you can individualize it for the patient," says Dr. Mark Wiederhold, president of the 12-year-old Virtual Reality Medical Center in California. "You can do it in the office, so the patient has privacy, and you can deliver a precise dose of exposure."


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