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Virtual Rx: how Oculus Rift could revolutionize mental health

Virtual Rx: how Oculus Rift could revolutionize mental health


The headsets are already being called 'a game changer' for treating PTSD and other psychiatric conditions

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Oculus Rift Hero
Oculus Rift Hero

It's been hailed as the holy grail of virtual reality gaming, but Oculus Rift might soon be much more than that. Though they've yet to reach the hands of regular consumers, the headsets have already been evaluated by a preeminent expert in virtual reality therapy, or VRT, the practice of immersing patients in virtual realms to treat mental health problems. His verdict? "They're a game changer for the work that we do."

"I have no question that Oculus will revolutionize virtual reality for clinical purposes," Dr. Albert Rizzo, a research scientist at the University of California's Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), told The Verge. "This system is going to be about so much more than playing games." Rizzo received an Oculus Rift developer's kit early, about six weeks before they shipped to other backers, because Oculus creator Palmer Luckey used to work as a technician in another lab at ICT.

Because of that early access, Rizzo has already tested the headset extensively — making him the first clinician to report assessing Oculus' potential in "non-entertainment" settings.

Indeed, Rizzo has something of an ideal background to evaluate new VR systems. In 2005, he developed first-of-its-kind virtual reality software designed to treat war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. His program, called Virtual Iraq, has since become a mainstay at several military medical centers as well as 55 Veterans Affairs clinics across the country. Rizzo has also developed another military-funded VRT program, meant to bolster soldiers' mental health before they deploy, that's currently being evaluated for widespread use.

Several studies have shown that Rizzo's VRT protocol yields a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms, and current research is comparing its effectiveness to other therapeutic approaches. In addition to PTSD, other experts are either using or evaluating VRT programs to treat addiction, phobias, and anxiety disorders, among other mental health problems.

Depending on the issue being addressed, VRT works in different ways — but the therapy is typically designed to mimic real-life scenarios that a patient struggles with. For war-related PTSD, patients use it to re-live combat situations, in an effort to assuage fearful associations linked to traumatic memories. For addiction, patients are confronted with triggers (a bar or a cigarette, for example) in an effort to cultivate and master their resistance strategies for cravings.

"The...idea is to get someone's head into it as much as you can"

Though the field of VRT continues to grow, Rizzo notes that it's been hampered by several factors. Namely, that virtual reality hardware remains costly — the systems used for Virtual Iraq run anywhere from $800 to $1,600 — and that the ability to fully immerse a patient is still limited. "The technology isn't where we want it," he said. "With exposure therapy and PTSD, the entire idea is to get someone's head into it as much as you can — we think that's what'll lead to better clinical outcomes."

Oculus Rift, given its low price and unprecedented realism, might very well solve both problems, Rizzo noted. He plans to recommend that treatment sites already using Virtual Iraq consider using Oculus Rift, and has already demoed the system to military clinicians at Joint Base Lewis-McCord. "This has the capacity to turn virtual reality [therapy] into a mass market treatment," he said. "I'm sure anyone doing this kind of clinical work will agree with me."

"People think virtual reality is all about gaming."

We might soon find out: Luckey told The Verge that "several hundred" developers kits have recently been shipped to individuals in "the military, as well as emergency response and medical training fields."

"Once these guys have something to show, it'll be pretty amazing," Luckey said. "People think virtual reality is all about gaming. But we really think that's only the beginning."