Research from the University of Kent
and the Research centre on Interactive Media, Smart systems and Emerging technologies - RISE Ltd (www.rise.org.cy)
has suggested the potential for Virtual Reality (VR) technology to have significant impact on the validity of remote health appointments for those with eating disorders, through a new process called Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET). This research published in Human-Computer Interaction Journal
is titled: “Now I Can See Me” Designing a Multi-User Virtual Reality Remote Psychotherapy for Body Weight and Shape Concerns.
Exposure Therapy (ET) is a common behaviour therapy treatment for psychological problems involving fear and anxiety. Through repeated exposures to the object of fear or anxiety, new learning is achieved with the result of better emotional management. Notably, Multi-User Virtual Reality has demonstrated success in the treatment of anxiety, social and general phobias, low self-esteem, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This paper demonstrates the potential value of Multi-User Virtual Reality remote psychotherapy for those with body shape and weight concerns.
In the study, recruited participants and therapists were placed in separate rooms, to then be fitted with the VR Head-Mounted Display of an Oculus Rift and then finally introduced to the therapist within the VR system. Here the participant would customize their virtual avatar according to their look (body shape and size, skin tone and hair colour and shape). After setting up the avatar, both participant and therapist were “teleported” to two Virtual Environment interventions for further discussion and analysis with the therapist, eventually leading to the Mirror Exposure.
Mirror Exposure usually involves confrontation in a mirror with ones’ shape and body. In the MUVR, the participant faces the virtual avatar customized by the participant to match their own physical body. Here, participants were again able to virtually adjust body shapes using virtual sliders, change clothing, skin tone, as well as hair style and colour. Clothing would then be gradually reduced until the participant’s avatar was in their virtual underwear.
At this point the participant was asked to look carefully at each part of the body and perform the appropriate adjustments while describing their feelings, thoughts and concerns with the therapist, leading to exposure to ones’ body shape and size via the customised avatar.
The study found that the avatar of the therapist was important to the participant, with the design akin to a cartoonish cube resulting in greater openness from participants, whilst therapist avatars in human-form represented potential judgement for those participating. In post-session interviews, participants described the importance of the lack of judgement enabling them to commit to the aims of the session fully.
Dr Chee Siang (Jim) Ang
, Senior Lecturer in Multimedia/Digital Systems and Supervisor of the study said: ‘The potential of Virtual Reality being used in addressing health issues with patients, remotely and without the issue of potential judgement, is for VR to be utilised throughout the health sector. Without the issue of judgement, which people can fear in advance of even seeking medical advice, this study shows that VR can aid people in having the confidence to engage with and embrace medical advice. In terms of the technical capabilities at hand, the potential for VR to aid in remote non-contact medical appointments between patients and practitioners is huge, due particular consideration in times of pandemic.’
Dr Maria Matsangidou
, Research Associate at Smart, Ubiquitous and Participatory Technologies for Healthcare Innovation and Experimental Researcher of the study said: ‘Multi-User Virtual Reality is an innovative medium for psychotherapeutic interventions that allows for the physical separation of therapist and patient, providing thus more ‘comfortable’ openness by the patients. Exposure to patient worries about body shape and size may exhibit anxious reactions, but through the remote exposure therapy this can elicit new learning that helps the patient to shape new experiences.’
For further information or interview requests, please contact Sam Wood at the University of Kent Press Office.
Tel: 01227 823581
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