Dawn Jewell recently treated a patient haunted by a car crash. The patient had developed acute anxiety over the cross streets where the crash occurred, unable to drive a route that carried so many painful memories.
So Dr. Jewell, a psychologist in Colorado, treated the patient through a technique called exposure therapy, providing emotional guidance as they revisited the intersection together.
But they did not physically return to the site. They revisited it through virtual reality.
Dr. Jewell is among a handful of psychologists testing a new service from a Silicon Valley start-up called Limbix that offers exposure therapy through Daydream View, the Google headset that works in tandem with a smartphone.
“It provides exposure in a way that patients feel safe,” she said. “We can go to a location together, and the patient can tell me what they’re feeling and what they’re thinking.”
The service recreates outdoor locations by tapping into another Google product, Street View, a vast online database of photos that delivers panoramic scenes of roadways and other locations around the world. Using these virtual street scenes, Dr. Jewell has treated a second patient who struggled with anxiety after being injured by another person outside a local building.
The service is also designed to provide treatment in other ways, like taking patients to the top of a virtual skyscraper so they can face a fear of heights or to a virtual bar so they can address an alcohol addiction.
Backed by the venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, Limbix is less than a year old. The creators of its new service, including its chief executive and co-founder, Benjamin Lewis, worked in the seminal virtual reality efforts at Google and Facebook.
The hardware and software they are working with is still very young, but Limbix builds on more than two decades of research and clinical trials involving virtual reality and exposure therapy. At a time when much-hyped headsets like the Daydream and Facebook’s Oculus are still struggling to find a wide audience in the world of gaming — let alone other markets — psychology is an area where technology and medical experts believe this technology can be a benefit.
As far back as the mid-1990s, clinical trials showed that this kind of technology could help treat phobias and other conditions, like post-traumatic stress disorder.
By Cade Metz
Image Credit: Jason Henry/The New York Times