A new study by psychiatry Professor Daniel Freeman and colleagues at the University of Oxford indicates that Virtual Reality (VR) technology can be successful in the treatment of fear of heights. The results indicated that using VR technology has clinical effectiveness “at least as good as face-to-face therapy" and benefits of the treatment were found to remain when measured again at a four-week follow-up to the delivery of the therapy.

In the treatment, the VR therapy is led by a virtual coach who guides the user through 30-minute virtual sessions where the user completes tasks intended to help lower their fear of heights.

The first session has the virtual coach provide a brief overview of the psychological underpinnings of fear of heights and treatment.

How was the study carried out?

The methodology used for the study was a randomised controlled trial, considered by many to be the gold standard of research design. This is, among other factors, because participants are randomly assigned to the group (treatment or control) they are in which, in turn, reduces bias in results. For ethical fairness, after the research period, the participants who were in the control group could have the VR treatment if sought.

The research was undertaken using participants over 18 years old who had a self-reported fear of heights and responded to a recruitment advert.

These participants completed a questionnaire to measure their fear, and those who scored over a certain cut-off went on to take part in the trial. Those who took part in the trial totalled 100 with 49 participants undergoing the VR treatment over a two-week period.

Published in British medical journal, The Lancet Psychiatry, the research suggests that VR technology has much feasibility to be used as a method of delivering psychological therapies.

It suggests that in future VR delivered therapy could even take place in home settings.

Wider context

This research comes as part of a wider project by Oxford VR, a “University of Oxford spinout,” which is creating “clinically validated, cost-effective, user-centered treatments for clinical conditions” according to the project website.

Earlier this year the team successfully bid for £4 million of funding from The National Centre for Health Research (NIHR) which is to be used for the creation of VR therapy for mental health issues. The intention is then to use the technology in the NHS for the first time.

Speaking of the project, the lead researcher, Professor of Psychiatry and clinical psychologist, Daniel Freeman, said: “When people put on our headsets, a virtual coach takes them into computer-generated simulations of the situations they find troubling.” The gains patients make are then “transfer[ed] to the real world” as “the experience triggers the same psychological and physiological reactions as real-life situations.”

The positive findings of this study will pave the way for future research on therapy delivered using VR technology.