Kiwi VR app oVRcome can help people beat their phobias - university study

  • 14/07/2022
A woman wearing a VR headset
The results showed a 75 percent reduction in phobia symptoms after six weeks. Photo credit: Getty Images

A New Zealand VR smartphone app has shown it can help people overcome their fears and anxiety after a randomised trial.

The three-month study involved researchers from the University of Otago, Christchurch campus with results offering fresh hopes to those suffering from fear of flying, needles, heights, spiders and dogs.

The trial, led by Associate Professor Cameron Lacey, studied phobia patients using a headset and a smartphone app treatment programme – a combination of VR video exposure therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Participants downloaded a fully self-guided smartphone app called oVRcome, which was developed by Christchurch tech entrepreneur Adam Hutchinson, who previously created free travel app CamperMate.

The app was paired with a headset to immerse participants in virtual environments to help treat their phobia, without placing them in danger.

The results from the trial, just published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, showed a 75 percent reduction in phobia symptoms after six weeks of the treatment programme.

"The improvements they reported suggest there's great potential for the use of VR and mobile phone apps as a means of self-guided treatment for people struggling with often-crippling phobias," Lacey said.

"Participants demonstrated a strong acceptability of the app, highlighting its potential for delivering easily accessible, cost-effective treatment at scale, of particular use for those unable to access in- person exposure therapy to treat their phobias."

A total of 129 people took part in the six-week randomised, controlled trial, which took place between May and December last year, with emailed weekly questionnaires to record their progress.

Anyone experiencing adverse events could request contact from a clinical psychologist at any stage.

"Participants experiencing all five types of phobia showed comparable improvements in the Severity Measures for Specific Phobia scale over the course of the trial.

"The average severity score decreased from 28/40 (moderate to severe symptoms) to 7/40 (minimal symptoms) after six weeks, with no participant withdrawals due to adverse events related to treatment," Lacey said.

The app uses "exposure therapy", a form of CBT that exposes people to their specific phobias in short bursts, which helps build up their tolerance.

"Some participants reported significant progress in overcoming their phobias after the trial period, with one feeling confident enough to now book an overseas family holiday, another lining up for a COVID vaccine and another reporting they now felt confident not only knowing there was a spider in the house but that they could possibly remove it themselves," Lacey said.

The level of exposure is tailored to an individual's need and included a relapse prevention model. 

The researchers said this trial was novel, due to the cost-effective availability of the app and headsets and the fact that multiple phobias were tested at once.

Most comparative VR studies to date have investigated high-end VR devices which are only available in research and limited clinical settings, they said.

Lacey said public demand to take part in the trial was unprecedented, demonstrating the increasing need and desire for phobia treatment in the community.

"We need to further research and explore the use of more cost-effective, easily- accessible, home-based solutions such as this oVRcome app, to provide people with the treatment and support they need."