Dr Stéphane Bouchard specialises in the use of virtual reality (VR) in the treatment of such conditions as anxiety disorders. He talks about the challenges posed by these technologies now that they are becoming accessible to the general public.

VR in Psychology: “A real wind of change will start to blow in the coming months”

Stéphane Bouchard, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Québec en Outaouais, in the Canadian town of Gatineau, explains how VR has come to be used in the field of psychology,  which may well be about to undergo profound change with the upcoming launch of Oculus Rift.

 

L’Atelier: What exactly can Virtual Reality contribute to the work of a psychologist?

Stéphane Bouchard: Well, it can help in several ways. From the psychotherapy viewpoint, VR allows us to summon up a situation which can arouse a person’s emotions. These emotions can then be used by the psychologist for a variety of purposes, for instance to bring out the fears of people who are suffering from nervous disorders. Virtual Reality can also be used to help drug addicts manage their craving for a given substance, or bring out the discomfort of people who feel the need to work on their physical image – especially anorexia sufferers. Then, in the field of neuropsychology, there’s an assessment element where Virtual Reality can enable us to set up a realistic situation which gives a better idea of reality as perceived by a patient. 

Are these VR-based therapies as effective as traditional therapies?

When it comes to anxiety disorders we see the same effectiveness rate as for traditional cognitive behavioural therapies. Sometimes they’re even more effective. For certain types of phobia we can attain up to an 80% success rate with long-term gains – 5 to 6 years post-therapy. In a very small number of studies, we see a higher rate of effectiveness, but that remains very rare.

« Looking at the cost/benefit ratio, VR has many advantages over traditional therapies »

On the other hand, as regards efficiency – i.e. looking at the cost/benefit ratio – VR has many advantages over traditional therapies. Mainly because for example I don’t need to actually go to the airport with a patient who has a phobia about flying.

Having said that, until a few years ago, we were just doing the same things in Virtual Reality that we were doing in vivo. So we shouldn’t expect it to be more effective. But in the last few years we’ve started to explore the potential of VR to go further.

Pour In terms of cost, can people obtain these therapies now?

Almost. This started around ten years ago. In the past the cost of the equipment – computer, headset, and so on – was actually prohibitive. Now it has become just relatively high. The cost of the software also used to be prohibitive. Nowadays you can buy a headset for less than €1,000. Yes, it’s expensive, but affordable. And when it comes to the software, the price is dropping all the time. Now you can buy the software for around €5,000.

       The upcoming launch of Oculus Rift will be a game-changer as regards using VR technologies in the field of psychology
 

But a real wind of change will start to blow in the coming months. The future is all about products such as Oculus Rift. These headsets will be launched on to the mass market in 2016. So next year we can expect to purchase a VR device for €300 or €400.

With increasing access to virtual reality, what are the challenges for VR and psychology?

The challenge is to be able to broaden the range of applications while ensuring a real scientific basis for doing so. Let me explain. At present we can treat a large number of conditions – anxiety, eating disorders, dependent personality disorder, and so on. But we might envisage expanding the number of applications much further. The challenge is to decide what we can and cannot do.

« So the challenge is to avoid a situation where anybody and everybody tries to treat just about everything » 

Up to now it has been mainly scientists who’ve been involved. From next year onwards, it’ll be just about anybody. So the challenge is to avoid a situation where anybody and everybody tries to treat just about everything.  This is a problem that doesn’t exist today but one that we might have to deal with a year or two down the road. It might be a good idea to have a regulatory body, but we wouldn’t want to find ourselves in the situation of the pharmaceutical industry, where you have to pay millions to get a product approved. In fact I don’t think that the problem has even been defined properly. The training and supervision that practitioners undergo might be sufficient.

But the main challenge will be the psychologists themselves. Data shows that cognitive behavioural therapy is still the treatment of choice for anxiety disorders. In France this is simply not the case. Using this sort of therapy is an exception in this country. So there are some basic things that are simply not being followed by French practitioners. On top of that, you’re adding an IT dimension, which isn’t a favourite field for most psychologists. Using and becoming expert in computer technology will therefore also be a challenge.

By Guillaume Scifo