… then analyses himself as Freud. Photo: Event Lab, University of Barcelona, Spain
In some styles, he says, virtual reality beats reality because it are used to experimentation in ways you can’t, physically, in real life( for example, putting people in different bodies to experience what it is like to be a different gender or ethnicity) or in situations you would avoid.
” I was in one session where the guy had such a fear of public speaking that he told us about speaking at his daughter’s wedding, and we said,’ How old is your daughter ?’ and he said,’ Three !’ So he spoke to a virtual audience. He said:’ I can’t do this, I’m turning bright red, my voice is an octave higher .’ The psychologist afterwards played it back to him and said:’ Is your face red? No. Are you speaking an octave better than normal? No .’ The psychologist did in one afternoon what would normally take 12 weeks .”
I have watched headlines is recommended that VR can cure depression. Surely that is an exaggeration?” Cure, I don’t know ,” Slater says.” But we published a study last year where we reduced the level of depression among a cohort of people through a VR intervention not that dissimilar from what I’m going to show you today. Part of having depression is that you are overly self-critical and cannot dedicate compassionate believes to yourself. So in the VR, you consider a exclaiming child. Beforehand, the therapist has given you a structure of things you should say to other people in order to give them compassion. So you say these things to the child who starts looking at you and stops crying. Then, in the next phase, you are that child, so you then find and hear your previous ego giving you the compassionate speech. When we dedicated this to a group of reasonably depressed people three times, the level of depression lessened .”
I put on my headset and sit in front of a screen. The program I’m trying, called VReflect-Me, is still being developed for people with anxiety matters and depression. It is based on the notion that, when advising friends, we are often kinder and more objective than when analysing ourselves.
First of all, an avatar is generated of me. Then I embody that avatar. I am in a therapy conference with a psychiatrist( in this case, Sigmund Freud) and I tell him my problems. In the next stage, I embody Freud. When my head moves, Freud’s head moves; when my hands move, his move; and when I’m ready, I advise myself in the form of Freud.( Slater said today Freud is a useful avatar, because you tend to adopt characteristics of your avatar; so, if he is wise, you become more wise .)
I tell Freud I have paranoid propensities; generally, I believe I’m incredibly boring with nothing to say and abhor formal social situations( not the tavern ), because I dread my folly is likely to be uncovered. More specifically, I tell Freud, I have just read comments on social media about an interview I just wrote saying that I gave my subject an easy ride. I am full of self-loathing, and feel useless at my job.
Now I switch roles, and am Freud advising me. The first time I do it, I’m too self-conscious. Slater gently suggests that I was not fully immersed. I ask if I can do it again. This time, I go for it. It might not be the style Freud would have responded, but I listen to my problems and then tear into myself- rightly or incorrectly, I make a good occurrence for not being boring, stupid and a rubbish journalist. I verbalise everything and reject it as solipsistic nonsense. I then return to my own avatar.” Good points. Well constructed ,” I say to Freud. And I mean it.
When I take off my headset and leave the virtual world, my breathing is quick and shallow- not unlike Chann’s after he’d been to the heights. I feel both ecstatic and emotional. Tearful, nearly. Even if it doesn’t last, it’s been a useful workout. I might say this kind of stuff to myself in my head, but it feels different when you say it out loud.
Slater is pleased with me.” Wow! You did amazing. You said,’ You, you, you !’ which is great .” What he entails is, I successfully got out of my head and into Freud’s. It strikes me as a powerful tool for therapists. There is no way I would have said what I said, as Freud, if I was simply talking to a real person.
But I can’t help thinking I’m a relatively safe example. What if I were more vulnerable? What, for example, if I suffered from the acrophobic’s call of the void, did the VR program, convinced myself I’d overcome my phobia, went to the nearest high-rise and jumped?
Dr Kate Anthony, an expert on the use of technology in therapy and a fellow of the British Association for Counselling& Psychotherapy, stresses that technology is there to be used alongside therapy, rather than instead of.” VR is a good opportunity for helping psychotherapists ,” she says,” but we’re not at a stage yet where virtual reality is going to be able to replicate a human therapist .”
It’s all very well, she adds, having software to encourage “youre talking” and tackle your dreads, but that will take you merely so far.” The VR therapist can’t respond in any meaningful way, and without that meaningful response, I don’t think the client is going to progress .”
Once VR treatments have been proven to be effective, she says, she would like to see them available on prescription. What about inducing them commercially available? No, she says, it’s too risky.” If we’re talking about paranoia, for example, any of these situations can trigger the customer. The trouble with something like that is it could bring up all sorts of issues. I would want to see it closely managed .”
Dr Michael Madary, a philosopher and technology ethicist, and his colleague Thomas Metzinger, have drawn up a code of conduct for the use of VR, some of which addresses its use in therapy. He supposes VR can have a positive impact, but that therapists must not blind themselves to the perils. One particularly sensitive issue, Madary says, is data. Participants in surveys know their data is confidential, but that could be very different if commercial companies invest in VR therapy purely for profit.” With motion tracking, especially facial tracking, users are going to reveal a lot about themselves- about their mental state, about how they react to various stimulus- and that data can be collected and then used as a powerful bargaining tool .”
He sees a scenario where there is an advertisement flashed, or product placed, in the virtual world and the content inventors collect the response of users to that ad based on the faces they make.” You can imagine seeing your avatar in a new coat, for example. There will be a lot of powerful techniques that emerge in marketing, with widespread employ of motion capture .”
Mel Slater is agreed that virtual reality can be abused. But anything can, he says.” You can use a bread knife to cut bread or to stab someone, so any tool can be misused deliberately. This is why I believe the applications in clinical psychology have to be led by people such as Daniel, who know the risks .”
Back in Oxford, Daniel Freeman is not so sure the programs require his presence to be effective. He is talking about his company Nowican, and anticipating the launch of its first product- Nowican Do Heights, the acrophobia program being trialled by Chann.
He said that he hoped the NHS and individual psychologists will invest in it, but believes its prime use will be for individuals seeking assistance.” We’re putting a virtual coach in there so you don’t need a therapist, and we’re also looking at better techniques than simple exposure .”
Is he in danger of doing himself out of a task?” No. We’re not saying it has to replace the therapist. Some people will want to talk to a therapist, and sometimes the complexity means you need a therapist. But the issue is, there aren’t enough therapists .” Freeman is hoping that, before long, we will be able to download this as an app on our smartphones.
In a world of diminishing NHS resources, Freeman regards it as a no-brainer:” I watch people who have been waiting 20 years and not had a chance of considering a therapist. The notion that we can give so many people the chance to access what the best therapists should be doing- that is really exciting .”
Watch the Guardian’s latest VR experience The Party, filmed from the perspective of a 16 -year-old girl with autism, on our new Guardian VR app. You can download it from the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store, or watch it as a 360 video, along with other Guardian VR experiences, at theguardian.com/ vr