A giant defense contractor and a special effects giant have launched a virtual world where players can even feel when they’re shot.
Participants also feel pain when injured; two muscle stimulators attached to the triceps administer electric shocks when a user is “shot.” Users can continue to play with non-fatal injuries, but head or chest shots immediately remove them from the training exercise. The electric shock is comparable to one encountered in physical therapy, says Raytheon’s Ellen Houlihan.
The idea behind exposure therapy is for people with PTSD to relive their traumatic experiences in a safe environment. Traditionally, the way therapists would help soldiers access their painful memories was by asking them to vividly imagine the sights and sounds of war. Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) takes matters a step further by actually presenting those sights and sounds.
The findings are part of a four-year study conducted by the Department of Defense National Center for Telehealth and Technology, which partnered with the Defenses Center for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury and the Department of Psychology at Madigan. VRET uses 360-degree interactive computer-generated environments, according to the Army, running a program called “Virtual Iraq.” Patients wear a head-mounted display, while the doctor orchestrates the relevant stimuli—helicopters overhead, gunfire, or even a Muslim call to prayer. A typical session lasts 90 minutes.
VRET isn’t entirely new; it had been shown to be effective in Vietnam veterans and survivors of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Literature on the therapy extends back at least to 1999. But the recent study extends its relevance to active-duty populations.
Dr. Greg Reger, lead author of the study, also thinks that since this generation of soldiers was reared on technology, it makes sense virtual reality would appeal to them. Said Reger in a press release: “It is possible that virtual reality exposure therapy would provide a more appealing treatment option to a young, technologically savvy generation of service members and veterans. In addition, it is possible that a treatment option like virtual reality exposure would be viewed by some service members as less stigmatizing than traditional treatment approaches,” thereby accessing service members who otherwise wouldn’t seek treatment. In other words: while seeing a shrink is embarrassing for certain soldiers, a video game is pretty cool.