[UX Calendar] Digital at the service of humans: the rise of virtual reality therapies

Revolutionizing traditional therapies, virtual reality (VR) is now at the forefront of healthcare. This technology, which adapts to each patient, effectively treats a wide variety of mental and physical disorders. It thus opens a new era of care by positioning well-being at the heart of digital innovation.

Understanding Virtual Reality in Therapy

What is Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET)?

Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VERT) is a significant development in the treatment of certain psychological disorders (anxiety, addiction, post-traumatic stress, etc.) and physical (motor and praxis disorders, phantom limb pain, etc.). 

This form of therapy uses computer-generated virtual environments to simulate situations that patients may, in “real life”, find stressful or difficult

Equipped with VR headset Equipped with headphones, with a therapist at their side, the user is immersed in a three-dimensional world where they can evolve and interact in a controlled manner. This could be a calming natural landscape, the interior of an elevator, or even the reproduction of specific scenarios related to the challenges the patient must overcome.

The evolution of TERV

TERVs began to be used in the 1990s to treat phobias and post-traumatic stress.

Since then, they have evolved significantly, benefiting from technological advances which have improved the quality and accessibility of virtual experiences. In addition to standalone VR headsets, some devices may include motion sensors and haptic gloves for tactile feedback, providing a full sensory experience.

In France, specialized centers have started to integrate TERV into their care programs, and the feedback is promising. Advances in graphics, motion tracking and user interfaces have gradually made it more immersive and efficient.

Proven scientific principles

The TERV relies on scientific principles that have proven themselves, in particular the systematic desensitization : Patients are gradually exposed to their fears – insects, planes, crowds, etc. – in a secure environment, thus reducing their anxious response over time. 

According to Health Magazine website, clinical studies have shown that this therapy displays a 80% success rate. Indeed, 8 out of 10 people manage to overcome their phobia in a few months!

Another principle is the memory reconsolidation. Here, TRV helps modify traumatic memories by reliving them in a therapeutic context, allowing patients to process them in a healthier way. 

Practical applications of virtual reality therapy

Treatment of phobias

Virtual reality is a valuable tool for treat many phobias.  

[Virtual exposure to a crowd helps treat agoraphobia.]

Gradually exposed to the situations they fear, the patient will become accustomed to the virtual anxiety-provoking stimuli over the course of the sessions. He will then be able to really cope with it by controlling his anxiety. 

Thus, arachnophobics will tame their fear of spiders in a virtual cellar while those who have fear of flying will learn to manage their stress without leaving the ground thanks to a virtual flight simulator.

Other common application examples: L'acrophobia (fear of heights),agoraphobia (fear of the crowd) or, less known, the mysophobia (fear of germs) can easily be overcome.

Physical and neurological rehabilitation

For the stroke victims, TERV can simulate everyday tasks, helping patients regain motor skills and independence. 

In the case of neurological disorders, as the Parkinson's disease, this therapy helps improve coordination and balance by providing targeted exercises in a stimulating virtual environment. 

These practical applications are not limited to the recovery of lost functions; they also aim to strengthen remaining capacities and improve neuroplasticity.

Development of social skills with TERV

This type of therapy has also been shown to be beneficial for people with autism spectrum disorders (TSA) in facilitating the development of social skills. Of virtual scenarios can be designed to teach and practice social interactions, such as maintaining eye contact or understanding nonverbal cues, in a controlled environment. 

This allows users to practice at their own pace, reducing anxiety associated with real-world social situations and increasing their self-confidence. 

The TERV, associal learning tool, offers a revolutionary method for helping people with ASD navigate a world that can often seem unpredictable and intimidating.

The benefits of virtual reality in therapy

Improving accessibility to mental health care

While care for mental disorders represents the largest health expenditure in France and the demand for care is constantly increasing (sante.gouv.fr), one of the major assets of Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy is its ability to make them more accessible mental health care

  • Geographically : it allows patients living in remote or underserved areas to access specialized therapies without the constraints of travel. 
  • financially : TERV can reduce the frequency and therefore the cost of traditional in-office therapy sessions through virtual reality applications used at home.

This increased accessibility is essential to democratize mental health care and provide support to as many people as possible.

Personalization of therapeutic pathways

TERV excels in the personalization of treatments: Each program can be adjusted for meet specific needs of the individual, taking into account their reactions and their progress.

This tailor-made approach is particularly beneficial for patients because it allows them to precisely target symptoms which require the most attention. 

Additionally, TERV's ability to simulate scenarios specific to each patient's life increases both their commitment and the effectiveness of the treatment.

Challenges and Ethical Considerations

Technical and practical challenges

Despite its many advantages, TERV faces significant technical challenges.

La quality of immersion, essential for therapeutic effectiveness, strongly depends on the technology used. Poor graphics or poorly designed user interfaces can break the illusion and reduce the impact of the treatment. 

Moreover, the problems of cybersickness, similar to motion sickness, remain an obstacle for some users, limiting prolonged use of this technology. 

These challenges require continued attention to improve user experience and guarantee its effectiveness as a therapeutic tool.

Ethical considerations and data confidentiality

The use of TERV in a therapeutic setting also raises important ethical questions, particularly regarding data confidentiality. 

Personal and sensitive data generated by patient interactions with virtual environments must be imperatively protected by robust security protocols to prevent any risk leakage or misuse of data.

In addition, it must be ensured that patients are fully informed about the types of data collected and their use, thus respecting their informed consent and their autonomy.
These ethical considerations are crucial for maintain patient trust et the integrity of TERV as a therapeutic practice.

The future of this 2.0 therapy and its impact on society

Future innovations

The future of TERV is promising, with technological advances that could boost its effectiveness: 

  • THEintegration of artificial intelligence could allow virtual environments to adapt in real time to patient reactions, for even greater personalization. 
  • La miniaturization and lighter equipment will make this mode of therapy more comfortable and accessible.
  • The improvements in the movement tracking and haptic feedback (1) will increase immersion and interaction. 

These innovations could pave the way for TRV applications not only in the therapeutic field but also in education, professional training and general well-being.

Societal impact 

TERV has the potential to transform our overall approach to mental and physical health:

  • By making care more accessible and personalized, it could democratize theaccess to quality treatments and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. 
  • Additionally, she could play a crucial role in prevention, helping individuals manage stress and anxiety before they become problematic. 
  • On a broader scale, TERV could influence how workspaces are designed, how education is delivered, and even how we interact socially, providing enriching experiences and training tools without the current physical or geographic constraints .

How far ? 

Virtual reality therapy redefines the boundaries of therapy and learning. Just as with artificial intelligence, even if we see all the benefits, we still have little understanding of all the implications of its increasing insertion into daily life.

As we explore its possibilities, a question emerges: how far should we allow virtual reality to become a part of everyday life, even for the well-being of humanity?

sources:

(1) the use of vibration and other force mechanisms to imitate various physical sensations.

 

 

Sylvie Austrui, UX Designer at UX-Republic