Imagine you are trapped in a burning building. It’s a nightmare scenario for anyone, but for people with phobias about heights or fire, it could be fatal. They could be too afraid to move – even to save themselves.
At the Industrial Virtual Reality Expo in Tokyo, researchers presented a new generation of virtual reality training system designed to overcome such fears. The user wears special shoes and a helmet which together reproduce with extreme reality sensations such as looking down from a great height, being trapped by a fire, or finding yourself alone in the middle of a wide open space. Users really do feel they have entered the new virtual environment. The system can be used for a lots of different purposes. For example it could train people to be better prepared for a big earthquake. It could also help for example, business owners simulate what it would be like to walk into their shops – even before they built them. The system is so realistic that one girl at the expo was actually too scared to move when asked to jump onto a scaffolding from a 24th-floor-window during a virtual fire drill. Vitual reality training isn’t new. It has been used for years to treat conditions such as extreme fears of public speaking, public spaces, autism and other pathologies. But researchers hope that making it more realistic will in the future make it more effective.