Professor’s app uses VR to treat spider phobias

[From CanadaEast’s New Brunswick Business Journal]

[Image: Darren Piercey in UNB Fredericton with a screen shot from his phobia app. Photo: Keith Minchin/For the Telegraph-Journal]

Professor’s app helps allay fears

Innovation: Phobia sufferers benefit from NBIF Breakthru finalist’s work

Published Monday February 28th, 2011
Jennifer Campbell
For the Telegraph-Journal

For some, a spider is a source of amazement – the way it weaves its beautiful web – and for others, a spider is a source of sheer horror.

It’s estimated that half of women and 10 per cent of men have some level of arachnophobia, or fear of spiders. Three per cent describe their fear of spiders as extreme. And, of course, there are other phobias too. Fear of cats, fear of dogs, fear of snakes, even fear of insects. While most people experience their fears mildly, UNB psychology professor Darren Piercey says his research shows they can still cost North American employers millions because of days missed from work.

So, the good doctor came up with the idea of creating some virtual reality software that would help people confront the sources of their fears. And last week, he was informed that he’s one of six finalists in the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation’s Breakthru business plan competition. He’ll find out March 16 if he wins the big prize of $100,000 or either of the two second prizes of $50,000. Each prize also comes with valuable business services.

Though he has a background in artificial neural-networks – he used computers to simulate human processes for his PhD studies – he’s not a gaming expert. So he teamed up with game designer Carl Callewaert, who helped him design software they call Spiders Treatment Game HD and sell at the Apple apps store.

The app, known as a “serious game” because of its therapeutic purpose, takes the user through five steps, all in a virtual reality environment that makes them feel they’re really experiencing it. They start by entering an apartment and seeing a spider in a terrarium across the room. For the second level, they walk up and their virtual hand touches the glass on the terrarium. In the third level, they walk through the apartment which now has spiders on the floor and couch and they have to get by them to another room where another spider waits in a terrarium. In the next level, they go inside the bedroom and there’s a large spider who’s actually coming at them. At the fifth level, they walk to the dining room of the apartment where a big spider that walks across the table onto their virtual hand. If at any point users feels too anxious, they can step back and employ the breathing techniques that go along with the game.

“We tested 400 undergrads for their fear of spiders,” Piercey says.

“Then we invited the top 40 to take part in the study. Eight agreed.

They used the software in our lab and we measured their physiological responses. Out of eight participants, four couldn’t get passed the second level.

“One woman was quite upset and was crying. We were hoping she’d come back and she did. She’s gone through three of four sessions and she says it’s helping her.”

The theory behind the tool is a component of cognitive behavioural therapy which systematically exposes the person to the stimulus they’re afraid of, gradually increasing the amount of exposure.

Piercey’s company is called CyberPsyc and he says the motivation for starting it was to create virtual reality programs that are accessible and affordable to everyone as current methods of delivery are expensive.

CyberPsyc’s first product, the spider app, is for sale in the Apple app store for $9.99. Piercey intends to create the other critter phobia apps – cats, dogs, snakes and insects – and get them to market soon.

“The idea of putting the apps in the Apple store is that it’s a way of showcasing the technology,” he says.

He estimates the apps will earn him between $75,000 and $100,000 over the next year, money he’ll use to develop more sophisticated phobia software. For example, he’s planning to create a version to help people overcome their fear of public speaking. “It’s a real problem for students,” he says. “A lot of them will avoid taking certain courses or degrees because they know they involve a lot of public speaking.”

He would team up with the university’s counselling services for that application and also market it to corporations whose employees must learn to public speak effectively. He’s also considering creating an app that helps people overcome their fears of dentistry.

Piercey said winning the Breakthru competition would help.

“It would allow us to move things along much more quickly and perhaps attract some talent with some business and sales experience,” he says.

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