article

Virtual reality therapy

Gareth Walkom | 24.05.2016

Gareth Walkom, who stammers himself, has recently completed a study at Nottingham Trent University on using a Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) device for stammering.

Virtual lecture theatre scenario

VRET is one of the most effective and safe methods of exposure therapy to date, and I believe that combining VRET with methods to benefit those who stammer and treat those with social anxiety, presents a unique and new effective method of therapy.

As part of my degree in Digital Media Technology, I constructed and tested a VRET device specifically aimed at people who stammer. It slowly introduces them into a lecture theatre environment, where they are to give a talk to an animated audience on a particular topic. The talk lasts for 5 minutes and results are gathered throughout the VRET regarding the participant’s level of anxiety, body temperature, and electrodermal activity (measurement of sweat). Comments related to the participant’s speech are also noted. The VRET uses up-to-date technology, including a Samsung Gear VR Headset with a Samsung S6 mobile phone and an Affectiva Q Sensor.

The animated audience and lecture theatre have been designed to be as realistic as possible, allowing the participant to relate it to a real-life situation. All animated members of the audience will move their arms, body, head and facial features throughout the VRET, simulating a real-life audience experience. I limited the virtual audience to 3 members, partly as being a safe option due to unknown anxiety levels of the participant, and partly because the speed of the VRET becomes slower for every character imported.

Study

I tested this device with a speech therapy support group in Nottingham. Results showed that the participants became anxious within the VRET, and anxiety levels for most participants were lower in their second session with the device. The body temperature and electrodermal activity levels increased over the time spent in the VRET, indicating an increase in anxiety while undergoing the method of exposure therapy. Also, in their second session with the device participants showed signs of speaking more fluently and stuttering more fluently. This has made them happier and more confident about talking to an audience within a lecture theatre, which potentially they will be able to relate to in a real-life situation.

Although I have had no speech and language therapy training, I have received intensive speech therapy from therapists at City Lit, London. I found the knowledge gained from this helpful in creating the device, which decreased levels of anxiety and improved speech in those who stammer.

VRET does not have to be limited to a lecture theatre scene, but can also use interview, telephone and date environments.

VRET does not have to be limited to a lecture theatre scene, but can also use interview, telephone and date environments. These environments will be able to test the participant’s anxiety levels and speech, just as the lecture theatre. The difficulty of these environments could also be adjusted, by changing the nature of the animated characters, background noise and distractions in the background.

A similar idea called Scenari-Aid has previously been developed. However, Scenari-Aid does not immerse the participant like virtual reality does, which can make the participant feel as though it is not a real-life experience. Using virtual reality allows the participant to fully look around all their surroundings, as if they’re actually in the environment.

I hope to keep developing this virtual reality exposure therapy by creating more scenes, and different levels of difficulty, and to continue to use this device with others to benefit them.

You can email me at gareth.walkom2012@my.ntu.ac.uk for further information.