Houston, TX – In an upcoming study, the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work is planning on using virtual reality technology to augment traditional therapy techniques used to help recovering heroin addicts maintain sobriety and resist the urge to use. The VR experience is that of a “heroin cave”—a virtual house party crammed with realistic situations that would normally act as a trigger to use the drug. With the help of a therapist, the participant navigates this environment. The goal is that the experience will feel real enough that users can actually develop the skills needed to fight these urges in real life situations.

Role-playing techniques are a standard practice in this sort of therapy, but they often fall short. As Patrick Bordnick, an associate dean of research and one of the study leaders explains:

“In traditional therapy we role-play with the patient but the context is all wrong. They know they’re in a therapist’s office and the drug isn’t there. We need to put patients in realistic virtual reality environments and make them feel they are there with the drug, and the temptation, to get a clearer picture and improve interventions.”

Why this matters: Over the past few years, VR has clearly demonstrated it’s dominance as a story-telling and even empathy-generating platform—it is encouraging to see it starting to be applied in therapy situations. The results of this study will take a while to come in, but they might demonstrate VR’s potential to heal. These immersive VR role-playing experiences could also start to be used to better train patients and caregivers that are just starting to understand their condition, are starting a complex treatment, or are learning to use a new medical device. The power lies in the ability to provide deeper, more realistic context.

You can read some more about the University of Houston’s project (and even see some screen grabs of the experience) at TechInsider here.

About the Author:

Jeffrey Giermek