People who had lived with a fear of heights for decades became less afraid after virtual reality (VR) therapy that saw them riding a flying whale, researchers said Thursday.
A specialised team that included psychologists and IT experts put confirmed acrophobes through their paces in a series of life-like VR simulations, after which all reported "a reduction in fear", they announced.
VR-based treatments, the team concluded, "have the potential to greatly increase treatment provision for mental health disorders."
With a virtual "coach" to guide people through treatment, the new method could offer a low-cost way of providing care to people who cannot afford or access a face-to-face therapist.
The VR coach uses the recorded voice of an actor.
Fear of heights, the most common phobia, affects one in five people at some point of their lives, according to researchers who published their findings in The Lancet Psychiatry medical journal
Most never receive treatment.
For the latest study, the team recruited 100 volunteers. Half were given VR treatment and the other half not, to allow for comparison.
This was the first VR phobia treatment not to require the presence of a real-life therapist, said the team.
"We designed the treatment to be as imaginative, entertaining and easy to navigate as possible," explained study leader Daniel Freeman of the University of Oxford's psychiatry department.
Wearing goggles and tactile gloves while standing safely on firm ground, patients moved around a 3-D world centred in the massive atrium of a computerised, ten-storey office building.
The pre-recorded, 30-minute programme sessions ran automatically, with the virtual coach explaining what the participants must do.
Tasks included having to cross a rickety bridge, rescue a cat from a tree, perform tasks near the edge of a balcony, and ride a flying whale.
The outcome after several sessions exceeded the researchers' expectations.
In self-reported feedback, "over three-quarters of the participants receiving the VR treatments showed at least a halving of their fear of heights," said Freeman.