Monday, June 25, 2001

Virtual-Reality Therapy

Some start cringing the second they hear the pilot’s voice. One lawyer who fears flying dashed to the door of her airplane and tried to open it before being tackled by several passengers and flight attendants. “Otherwise high- functioning adults have phobias that make them irrational,” says Robert Reiner, who runs Behavioral Associates in New York. But virtual-reality software from the Georgia-based Virtually Better, Inc., is helping psychologists like Reiner fight the fear factor. Patients don glasses and headphones to simulate all aspects of flight – from taxi and takeoff to turbulence to landing. Reiner then measures anxiety through heart rate and perspiration, working with clients to pinpoint and overcome the phobia. With a graph plotting their biological responses to the experience, users can see that their panic is self-generated and under their control. For combat verterans, there’s the Virtual Vietnam program to take sufferers back to the rice fields via Huey helicopter. Virtual-reality techniques are also useful for steadying panicked public speakers and relaxing golfers with six-foot putts to sink.

Mary Carmichael, Gretel C. Kovach,

Andrew Mandel and Jennifer Wehunt