3-D technology used to combat phobias, PTSD

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Sean Minns, radio-television-film student researcher, repositions a snake for his 3-D virtual reality study.

Photo Credit: Griffin Smith | Daily Texan Staff

To enhance the effectiveness of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and animal phobias, the UT3D program is now using its technology to create the illusion of being exposed to a fear, without having to come into direct contact.

The 3-D Fear Project was created in collaboration with the radio-television-film department and the psychology department. It uses an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and sound cancellation headphones to expose the patient to what they fear in the most realistic environment possible. Sean Minns, radio-television-film visiting student researcher, said using regular video to combat phobias is not enough.

“You might think it’s simple enough to use video, but it doesn’t seem to always activate the sections of the brain necessary to habituate,” Minns said. “Cues of depth and motion and realism play such an important role in how we perceive fear.”

Minns said the project aims to add a preliminary step before exposure therapy, which is when people are directly exposed to what they fear in order to overcome their phobias. Spiders and snakes are currently the only creatures being tested.

“Exposure therapy works in steps: You start with a mild step and you help the patient progressively confront more and more anxiety-provoking situations of dealing with the stimulus,” Minns said. “In hopes, when they’re done with going through this, they’ll be better to confront the spider or snake in real life.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs, 7 to 8 percent of Americans will experience PTSD in their lifetimes, and, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 8.7 percent of Americans experience a phobia.

Andrew Xanthopoulos, a member of the 3-D production staff in the radio-television-film department, said experiments such as this prove that 3-D technology has the potential to make an impact in a number of fields.

“If it elicits these kinds of reactions in a study like this one, then its potential as a storytelling device is even greater,” Xanthopoulos said. “It just needs to be put in the hands of young artists, rather than studio executives, which is exactly what the UT3D program is pioneering.”

Radio-television-film senior Rachel So said, even though she is afraid of cockroaches, she would have no interest in the 3-D program to help her overcome her fear.

“That sounds awful to me,” So said. “I hate them so much — I don’t even like talking or thinking about them.”

According to Minns, the availability of the hardware for the program will be much more convenient than the current systems in place.

“The Oculus Rift has been a godsend in terms of research because something like this would previously cost like $1,000, and the one that we have, the development kit, was like $300,” Minns said. “What we’re doing right now is trying to find a cost-effective solution that can be made custom for the patients.”