Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
After World War II, computer scientists and engineers developed technology, such as flight simulators, that provided an early foundation for virtual reality through digitization, real-time graphics, and interactive and pointing devices. By the early 1980’s, medical and computer science professionals collaborated to integrate their specialties. Some medical professionals incorporated virtual reality as a tool to learn and practice medical procedures, especially surgery, by manipulating virtual organs. Virtual reality underwent a transition from laboratories to hospitals. Physicians reported that virtual reality eased the pain that burn patients felt by distracting them and making them unaware of the real world through immersion in alternative environments such as snowy landscapes, which convinced patients that they felt coolness.
Another foundation for modern virtual reality was the computer program ELIZA. Created in 1966 by Joseph Weizenbaun, ELIZA was not strictly a virtual reality environment but an early form of computer-simulated psychotherapy. Although ELIZA was a grammar program that used only text, it seemed to engage the user in Rogerian therapy. By the early 1990’s, virtual reality had expanded to creating both visual and auditory environments.
Virtual reality techniques were appropriated for psychological applications by the early 1990’s to influence people’s perceptions and psychological processes....
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Therapies (Psychology and Mental Health)
Six types of virtual reality therapies have been tested. All rely on convincing people that they are experiencing an environment by making it realistic to their senses of sight, hearing, and touch. The desktop method involves interacting with images on a computer screen by using pointing devices. Projected virtual reality casts the patient’s image into an artificial setting. Cave virtual reality displays images on the walls of a small room, allowing several people to participate in therapy simultaneously. Telepresence delivers a setting from another place on a video screen that the patient observes. Augmented virtual reality uses objects that enhance the setting for specific therapies. Immersive virtual reality is used most frequently and includes aspects of other virtual reality types. In contrast to two-dimensional computer images, virtual reality creates a three-dimensional environment composed of computer graphics. People believe they are immersed in and participating in the simulation. This illusion is enabled by devices that participants wear that aid them to interact with and manipulate the virtual setting. A head-mounted visor has a stereoscopic optical display. The scenery is adjusted by motion-tracking sensors attached to people’s heads and limbs, and the experience seems more realistic because graphics respond convincingly to movement. Additional sensors in datagloves improve the illusion by suggesting that the participant...
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Treatment (Psychology and Mental Health)
Many psychologists have been skeptical as to whether virtual reality can be advantageous for therapeutic use. Many professionals consider the expense associated with equipment and operation of some types of virtual reality therapy to be prohibitive. In addition, they consider virtual reality at worst to be an irrelevant technology more suitable for entertainment than therapy and at best to be an experimental therapy requiring additional research. Gradually, the benefits of virtual reality have secured the approval of some mental health practitioners, many of whom admit to being surprised at patients’ successful improvement due to virtual reality exposure (VRE) therapy. Virtual reality therapy has been used to address a variety of potential psychological problems and other difficulties, including phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, autistic spectrum disorders, and addictive behaviors. It has been used in the area of cognitive assessment and for self-improvement in the area of weight management.
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Phobias (Psychology and Mental Health)
Virtual reality’s most frequent psychological application is treatment for phobias. VRE therapy parallels traditional therapy in which patients’s exposure to a situation or object stimulus that arouses acute fear and anxiety is gradually increased. Such exposure is either in vivo (actually experienced by the patient) or in vitro (imagined by the patient). The degree of exposure is deliberately increased over time. Individuals become conditioned and desensitized, learn not to panic, and develop more receptive attitudes.
Virtual reality creates a safe, private environment in which patients can confront their fears without being publicly embarrassed or risking physical harm. Compared with most real settings and props, such as airplanes and animals, that are necessary for conventional phobia therapy, virtual reality is inexpensive and more controllable. Multiple stimuli can be presented. Specific stimuli can be isolated, and distractions can be eliminated. Virtual reality also allows therapists to develop settings not easily located in their communities.
Patients can face frightening situations and objects virtually that they could not initially handle in person. These virtual depictions of dangerous settings are more realistic than most patients would imagine. Virtual reality enables people to overcome the limitations of their imagination and memory. Active interaction with anxiety-arousing stimuli causes patients to feel...
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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Psychology and Mental Health)
Chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been addressed through the use of virtual reality. At the Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Computing, a group of Vietnam veterans with PTSD were treated using virtual reality therapy. During virtual reality sessions, therapists encouraged veterans to narrate their military experiences. The veterans were asked to repeat their stories many times to bolster their memories. Although many veterans were reticent to share their stories in traditional therapy, virtual reality freed them to become more talkative and physical as they interacted with virtual comrades and enemies in a setting that included combat sounds.
Such experiences helped the veterans deal with guilt about such things as being the sole survivor of an attack. Although their PTSD was not eliminated, many veterans experienced a lessening of problems after they revisited their memories via virtual reality. Veterans’ hospitals have incorporated virtual reality equipment into therapy treating chronic anxiety disorders.
The Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City has used virtual reality to address a variety of PTSD situations, including among veterans of the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars. Virtual reality therapy has also helped survivors of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001. The treatment includes virtual exposure to the towers before, during,...
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Autistic Spectrum Disorders (Psychology and Mental Health)
Through virtual reality worlds such as Second Life, individuals can seek out others for social interaction. In Second Life, users create an avatar that is a representative of themselves and use that avatar to interact with the virtual environment and other avatars in that virtual environment. Self-help groups are not uncommon in Second Life. Through virtual reality, individuals with autistic spectrum disorders can reach out to others with similar concerns and problems. Geographically diverse individuals can interact and help each other. For example, a young man with Asperger syndrome established Naughty Auties, a resource center for individuals with autistic spectrum disorders, in Second Life. However, seeking help in the unregulated environment of virtual reality carries significant risk in that the avatars’ real identities are unknown, as is the veracity of their statements. Despite this drawback, virtual reality, which does not have the same pressures as real-life social interactions, seems to provide an optimum place for individuals to practice social interactions in a variety of virtual settings without the risk of failing in the real world. Research is just beginning in this area, but some results have been promising.
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Addictive Behaviors and Self-Improvement (Psychology and Mental Health)
Virtual reality has been used to deal with addictive behaviors such as smoking. In virtual reality environments, patients can practice coping skills when confronted with virtual simulations of situations and stimuli that trigger their addictive behaviors. The virtual environment seems to provide the right balance of believability of stimuli without the risk of real-life failure. Virtual reality also has been used therapeutically for patients’ self-improvement.
Eating disorders have been successfully treated with virtual reality methods that often supplement traditional forms of therapy. The virtual-reality-based experiential cognitive treatment of obesity and binge-eating disorders assists people to modify their flawed body perceptions. Improved body awareness obtained through an integration of virtual environments and traditional cognitive behavioral and visual-motor therapies results in awareness of latent feelings, decreased problematic eating, and displays of more normal social behavior.
Research has also confirmed that virtual reality can be used to make exercising more enjoyable. Similar to watching television or listening to music while exercising, virtual reality can provide a distraction. Instead of biking in the gym, virtual reality can allow the individual to bike through the English countryside or on the course for the Tour de France.
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Measurement, Neuroscience, and Education (Psychology and Mental Health)
Virtual reality environments allow patients who are unable to function in normal settings to respond to stimuli presented in real time. Neuroscientists can then gauge individuals’ cognitive abilities. Virtual reality has proven effective in rehabilitating some individuals who are cognitively impaired because of brain injuries or diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Patients are tested with virtual reality scenarios that researchers can control and adjust as needed to assess how well individuals function.
Virtual settings offer people with neurological impairments the opportunity to interact with an environment to which they would otherwise lack physical access to enrich their sensory and motor skills. Virtual reality classrooms have been designed to evaluate and measure the cognitive abilities of children who possibly have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Most cognitive researchers consider virtual reality tests less biased than traditional tools and do not consider its lack of realism, comparable to that of a photograph, problematic. Virtual reality has proven beneficial in working with children with a variety of reading disabilities and delays. School districts have used virtual reality games that engage students with a story line to increase reading scores. Virtual reality has also been used to successfully teach other subjects.
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Side Effects and Risks (Psychology and Mental Health)
Virtual reality is limited by its costs, complexity, technology, and reliability, as well as the technical proficiency of users. Time delays, noise, and distortions (particularly in body image sessions) can impede therapy, although technological advances will continue to address these issues. To improve techniques, virtual reality researchers have begun investigating human-computer interaction with clinical tests. They are interested in how people perceive and accept or reject computer-generated worlds as a mental health treatment method. Researchers evaluate whether virtual reality therapy is more time- and cost-effective than traditional techniques.
Some patients may experience simulation sickness, which is a form of motion sickness, and nausea. Careful design of virtual scenarios and screening of patients can minimize such adverse reactions. Some people’s neck muscles are too weak to support heavy virtual reality helmets, and many claustrophobic patients are reluctant to wear the bulky helmets. Some users experience depth perception problems. Sometimes virtual reality confuses patients, and virtual experiences replace real experiences in memories. Migraines and seizures are also a possibility. Despite these risks, many patients, however, seem receptive to virtual reality techniques.
Although virtual reality does present many opportunities for treatment and growth, the unregulated environment of many virtual...
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Baumann, Stephen, and Michael A. Sayette. “Smoking Cues in a Virtual World Provoke Craving in Cigarette Smokers.” Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 20, no. 4 (December, 2006): 484-489. Discusses how virtual reality was used to immerse subjects in a realistic environment to induce cravings, enabling researchers to study the use of cognitive behavioral therapy and desensitization therapy.
Mühlberger, Andreas, Heinrich H. Bülthoff, Georg Wiedemann, and Paul Pauli. “Virtual Reality for the Psychophysiological Assessment of Phobic Fear: Responses During Virtual Tunnel Driving.” Psychological Assessment 19, no. 3 (September, 2007): 340-346. Address the use of virtual reality to treat the phobia of driving in tunnels.
North, Max M., Sarah M. North, and Joseph R. Coble. Virtual Reality Therapy: An Innovative Paradigm. Colorado Springs, Colo.: IPI Press, 1996. One of the first texts describing the potential of virtual reality to provide alternative treatments for a variety of psychological disorders.
Riva, Giuseppe, Brenda K. Wiederhold, and Enrico Molinari, eds. Virtual Environments in Clinical Psychology and Neuroscience: Methods and Techniques in Advanced Patient-Therapist Interaction. Amsterdam: ISO Press, 1998. Pioneer researchers in the field of virtual reality therapy compare virtual reality versus traditional methods and discuss the roles of humans and...
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Virtual Reality (Encyclopedia of Science)
Virtual reality is an artificial environment that is created and maintained by a computer and that is at least partly shaped and determined by the user. A virtual reality system allows the user to "leave" the real world and step into a world whose sensory inputs (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) are provided not by natural objects but by computer-created means. The things that happen in that virtual world can then be manipulated to a large extent by the user.
In its most basic form, virtual reality systems consist of a computer and softwarenown as the reality enginend input and output sensors. A sensor is a device that responds to some physical stimulus. A human eye, for example, is a sensor that responds to light rays.
In standard computer technology, input devices are the familiar keyboard, mouse, knobs, and joysticks; output devices include the printer and video display. Virtual reality input/output devices include head- and earmounted equipment for hearing and seeing and gloves for controlling the virtual world. The fourth "component" is the user, who directs the chosen environment and reacts to it.
The reality engine. The reality engine employs both computer hardware and software to create the virtual world. Reality engines are based largely on the same components that make up a personal computer...
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Virtual Reality (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Virtual reality is that part of human experience that does not happen in a physical space. Reading a book creates virtual reality, as does participating in an online chat or a telephone conference. These experiences are called "virtual" because the people involved are not actually in the story of the book or in a conference room with other people but physically separated; nonetheless, they participate in the community through thought and imagination and, in some cases, through their eyes, via the monitors, and fingers, via the keyboards.
The term virtual reality came into wide use during the 1990s with the increasing popularity of the Internet, and the concept of virtual reality led to many of the metaphors used to describe Internet interactions. A chat room, for example, is not a room, and it does not even have a physical location; it consists entirely of the people who are "meeting" there and interact. They do not meet, of course, but happen to be at their personal computers at the same moment in time. They also do not chat or talk but write messages that appear on others peoples' screens. Keyed graphics called smileys, such as :-) and ;-}, convey emotional content. Sometimes people wander off into separate "rooms" to be more "intimate" with a few others instead of sharing their thoughts in "public." These and many other metaphors are used for two reasons. First, humans are physical entities, and, from an evolutionary perspective, everything they did in the past happened in physical time and space. Language arising from this background is naturally physical in its description of human interaction. But once these metaphors are used they also become a selling point for virtual reality because they suggest that virtual reality allows for complete personal interactions.
Despite their obvious popularity, chat rooms and other virtual reality entities raise serious questions. One of the most obvious is the fact that among virtual reality communities there are several churches and prayer groups. The question is, can such spiritual virtual reality communities actually replace mortar and brick churches? Cybercommunities lack the physical space that bodies, together in liturgy and practice, create. Gender, race, and age have no defined roles. In virtual reality, people can lie about themselves and construct different identities. In addition, virtual reality communities give people the freedom to project all their wishes and desires about a "real" community onto the cyber-community because there is no way to know who is there and if the people are actually likeable. But is this community? And where does this wish for clean and perfect relationships come from when everyone knows that real-world relationships are flawed, stressful, full of ambiguities, yet so much fun. Because there is no physical commitment or connection in cyberspace, web communities may be ultimately indifferent and meaningless to the people involved.
The understanding of humankind in recent years has changed from a dualistic, cognition-oriented understanding toward an embodied and social one. The intelligence of humans is not the main characteristic of the speciest is much more the human capacity to connect and to survive in any given environment. Virtual reality, however, is a direct result of the assumption that embodiment and shared physical space are not important for community building because the body is not part of what turns a human into an individual. But if cognitive science theories are correct, then virtual reality spaces lack the required physicality, and relationships in them are incomplete.
See also INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY
Gray, Chris Hables; Figueroa-Sarriera, Heidi J.; and Mentor, Steven; eds. The Cyborg Handbook. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Paul, Gregory, and Cox, Earl D. Beyond Humanity: Cyberevolution and Future Minds. Rockland, Mass.: Charles River Media, 1996.
Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen. New York: Simon &Schuster, 1995.