In a VRET session, a patient is exposed to a fear (such as a spider, mouse, or clown – choose your pick) in a simulation. Exposure to this fear happens gradually, introducing the patient to a situation inducing a small amount of anxiety, while kicking up the intensity a notch whenever they become adjusted and comfortable with the situation.
PATRONUS stands for Personalized Anxiety Therapy thRough lOngitudinal & User-aware Services and is an imec.icon research project – a collaboration between multiple research groups and companies, led by PreviewLabs and Ghent University’s IDLab. Other than the coordination of the efforts of the different project partners, our role included the organization of a requirements analysis and a brainstorm session, as well as ongoing prototype work, while collaborating closely with The Human Link (a private center for treatment of phobias and anxiety disorders based in Antwerp) and Ghent University’s MICT (a research group which studies innovation through digital media, which includes serious games and simulations and with whom we previously collaborated on exergaming and rehabilitation projects). Read more about the PATRONUS project on the project’s page on the website of imec, an R&D and innovation hub.
In this project, the focus lies on two different disorders: claustrophobia or fear of being in small spaces – with an elevator scenario, and fear of being in a car surrounded by busy traffic.
One of the key elements in the scope of the PATRONUS prototype is to explore and show how VRET has a number of promising advantages over conventional therapy. For example:
By using simulation as opposed to real life scenarios, therapists are able to fine-tune the level of exposure. For example, when exposing clients to real-life situations, therapists may need an array of different elevators in order to modify specific aspects that induce anxiety for the patient in question – such as elevator size, the type of the doors, number of other people in the elevator, and the precise sounds the elevator makes. In VR, these fine controls are available at the therapist’s command. Does the elevator need to jump? It will jump!
The cost of the therapy may be lower as a part the therapy can be done at home without requiring a therapist to be involved during the entire session. No need to actually chase a traffic jam and get stuck in traffic in order to deliver a brief session of exposure.
VRET is repeatable with a high fidelity: due to the use of computer simulation, the delivery of the therapy is consistent each time and across patients.