Augmented reality (AR) is a new technology where information is virtually layered on top of reality. For example, you might point your smartphone’s camera at a Washington D.C. landmark and see not only a live video feed of that landmark on your phone, but also information about that landmark (size, age, hours of operation, etc.) on top of the video.
As a very new technology, there’s not much research available on AR, and even less psychological research. But one study appeared in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking that caught my eye. It’s called “An augmented reality system validation for the treatment of cockroach phobia.”
Bugs don’t bug me as much some people I know, but this system creeps me out. Participants in the study sit at a desk with a computer wearing a virtual reality headset. The headset has a camera attached, such that the person wearing it will see a video representation of the desk that they’re looking at. But with cockroaches.
That’s right. You sit at a desk, wear a virtual reality headset, and then see the desk that you’re sitting at covered in cockroaches.
That sounds a lot more horrible than it probably is. One major therapy technique for treating phobias is called exposure therapy, which is the gradual exposure of a person with a phobia to the source of that phobia – essentially “facing your fears,” a little bit at a time. A therapist in control of this system would make judgments as to what level of cockroach exposure the patient was ready for, gradually increasing the prevalence of cockroaches over many sessions. So over time, the patient would see more and more cockroaches but nothing bad would ever happen to them as a result, and eventually, their phobia is extinguished.
This article is only a first step. Their goal was to elicit a realistic phobia response using simulated cockroaches, and that seems to have worked. Six female participants with cockroach phobia reported extremely high anxiety levels when presented with the simulated cockroaches. Thus by using the AR system, participants experienced symptoms similar to what they would experience with real cockroaches. That’s important, because if people with cockroach phobia don’t really think cockroaches are near them, there’s no way for them to face their fear.
There are only six participants in this study, which I think is most likely the result of difficulty in finding people with cockroach phobias, which may limit the generalizability of this system in provoking fear responses. But I do think it’s enough evidence to move on to the more important question anyway: Does exposure therapy on phobias using AR work as well as traditional exposure therapy? If so, it opens up the possibility of simulating even more phobias virtually that are difficult for therapists to expose to patients without risk or high cost, like fears of falling, flying, heights, and dead things.Footnotes: