VR is increasingly being used to treat a wide range of mental health problems, and more people are starting to get comfortable with it.
A new study has found a substantial number of people prefer to be more open about themselves in virtual reality (VR) than in real life.
Research carried out by Edith Cowan University (ECU) found 30 percent of people prefer to talk about negative experiences with a VR avatar as opposed to another person.
The study was published in Frontiers in Virtual Realty, where researchers compared social interactions where people engaged in VR conversation versus face-to-face.
They used full face and body motion capture technology to create a ‘realistic motion avatar’ that closely mimicked their real-life counterpart, then analysed how people interacted with avatars compared to people.
Psychology and communication researcher Dr Shane Rogers said participants rated their experience on factors like enjoyment, comfort, awkwardness, perceived understanding, and the extent to which they felt they disclosed information about themselves.
The only ratings where face-to-face was found to be superior was for perceived closeness across both types of communication and for feeling understood when disclosing negative experiences.
“Overall people rated VR social interaction as similar to face-to-face interaction, with the exception of closeness, where people tended to feel a little closer with each other when face-to-face,” Dr Rogers said.
Most fundamentally, VR aims to mirror reality and create a world that is both immersive and interactive. Visually, VR system components work together to create sensory illusions that produce a believable simulation of reality.
Not only do experience look and sound very real, but it is also possible to physically feel objects through haptic gloves that can provide textural and resistant feedback within a digital environment.
While VR technology has been around for a while, Dr Rogers said this study suggested that using motion capture to enhance VR could eventually see it enter our everyday lives.
“This technology has the potential for broad application across a number of areas such as casual conversation, business, tourism, education and therapy,” he said.
And when it comes to therapy, it would open up to a new subset of people who do not feel comfortable with regular face-to-face interactions, Dr Rogers added.
“It might also enable therapists to conduct therapy more effectively at a distance, as a person can be in the therapist room (in virtual reality) while seated in their own home.”
Rather than being niche, Dr Rogers expects VR social interaction to become more common over the next five years.
“More powerful computers are becoming more affordable, VR headsets and peripherals are continuing to develop, and more user-friendly VR interaction software platforms are becoming available and being updated,” he said.
New frontier of therapy?
Academics have studied the potential of VR to treat disorders like anxiety since the 1990s.
What has helped is that recreational VR headsets are getting cheaper and more accessible. Sales to the public, especially now during the pandemic, have only risen.
Research in VR-assisted therapy, as a result, is also growing.
Many VR therapies build on a therapeutic technique known as prolonged exposure, where patients first describe a traumatic event to a therapist in detail and then confront triggers of the traumatic event.
While controversial in some circles, prolonged exposure is largely accepted as an effective strategy to treat chronic PTSD.
In one example, VR exposure therapy in Iraq War veterans was tested on 20 patients, 16 of whom ended up no longer meeting the diagnostic criteria for PTSD by the end of it.
However, experts like Andrew Sherrill, assistant professor of psychiatry at Emory University, worries that as VR expands, people might opt for a self-directed treatment than consult with licensed professionals, potentially making formal therapies obsolete.
“It’s the closest thing our field has to just making opioids available over the counter,” Sherril said.
He added that VR treatments are not any more effective than traditional prolonged exposure therapies.
But for some patients, Sherrill said that VR offers convenience and immersion that is otherwise hard to replicate.