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Cockroaches? Yikes! ODU Prof Featured in Popular Science for his Thoughts on Using Augmented Reality to Cure Phobias

Richard Landers, an assistant professor of psychology at Old Dominion University, was featured recently on the Popular Science magazine website discussing something he's very interested in - the pants getting scared off of people.

In his blog, "Thoughts of a Neo Academic," Landers, a specialist in industrial/organizational psychology, had written about a Spanish study that tested augmented reality (AR) as a possible technique to cure people of phobias.

In the study, test subjects were "covered" in cockroaches, although the actual covering occurred via video through an augmented reality system.

Landers notes that six of the female test subjects reported experiencing actual phobia about the cockroaches, even though they weren't there physically. He wrote on his blog that the finding raises the possibility of subjects being exposed to their phobia - though not actually experiencing it to the touch - and learning to overcome it.

In the study, participants sat at a desk with a computer, wearing a virtual-reality headset. The headset had a camera, so the person wearing it would see a video of the desk she was sitting at - but covered in virtual cockroaches.

"One major therapy technique for treating phobias is called exposure therapy, which is the gradual exposure of a person with a phobia to the source of that phobia - essentially 'facing your fears,' a little bit at a time," Landers wrote.

"A therapist in control of this system would make judgments as to what level of cockroach exposure the patient was ready for, gradually increasing the prevalence of cockroaches over many sessions. So over time, the patient would see more and more cockroaches but nothing bad would ever happen to them as a result, and eventually, their phobia is extinguished."

Landers noted the small size of the study (possibly due to the difficulty of finding test subjects willing to expose themselves to a non-mainstream phobia) limits the potential for its findings to be generalized. And the study was limited to finding out whether an AR system could sufficiently induce anxiety.

"But I do think it's enough evidence to move on to the more important question anyway: Does exposure therapy on phobias using AR work as well as traditional exposure therapy? If so, it opens up the possibility of simulating even more phobias virtually that are difficult for therapists to expose to patients without risk or high cost, like fears of falling, flying, heights, and dead things," Landers said.

Landers' views on the Spanish study, and the possibility of AR therapy being used to treat phobias in the future, can be found on his blog at: http://neoacademic.com/2010/05/15/fight-your-fear-of-cockroaches-with-augmented-reality/.

Popular Science has been a leading source of science and technology news since 1872. PopSci.com came online in 1999.

This article was posted on: May 19, 2010

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