Albert “Skip” Rizzo of the University of Southern California began studying virtual reality (VR) as psychological treatment in 1993. Since then, dozens of studies, his included, have shown the immersion technique to be effective for everything from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety to phobias and addiction. But a lack of practical hardware has kept VR out of reach for clinicians. The requirements for a VR headset seem simple—a high-resolution, fast-reacting screen, a field of vision that is wide enough to convince patients they are in another world and a reasonable price tag— yet such a product has proved elusive. Says Rizzo, “It’s been 20 frustrating years.”
In 2013 VR stepped into the consumer spotlight in the form of a prototype head- mounted display called the Oculus Rift. Inventor Palmer Luckey’s goal was to create a platform for immersive video games, but developers from many fields—medicine, aviation, tourism—are running wild with possibilities. The Rift’s reach is so broad that Oculus, now owned by Facebook, hosted a conference for developers in September.
The Rift, slated for public release in 2015, is built largely from off- the-shelf parts, such as the screens used in smartphones. A multi- axis motion sensor lets the headset refresh imagery in real time as the wearer’s head moves. The kicker is the price: $350. (Laboratory systems start at $20,000.)
Rizzo has been among the first in line. His work focuses on combat PTSD. In a 2010 study, he placed patients into controlled traumatic scenarios, including a simulated battlefield, so they could confront and process emotions triggered in those situations. Of his 20 subjects, 16 showed a reduction in symptoms, such as moodiness and depression, after 10 sessions in Rizzo’s homegrown VR setup; they maintained those levels through a three-month follow-up. In August, Oculus began delivering close-to-final Rifts to researchers, which will allow Rizzo to move his testing onto the device.
Others are using the Rift in therapy for anxiety and phobias. In an unpublished claustrophobia test, Fernando M. Tarnogol, psychologist and founder of VR company PsyTech, walked subjects into a virtual closet. They reported near-complete immersion, a response he corroborated with physiological data. He aims to release the platform close to the Rift debut. People who own a Rift, however, will not be self-administering therapy. Rather these systems promise clinicians an in-office tool— one that’s been stuck in labs for decades.