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Since the spring of 1993, the authors have been investigating the possibility of using virtual environments to conduct exposure therapy of individuals with psychological disorders. They describe their pilot study, which used virtual reality graded exposure techniques to treat acrophobia--the fear of heights. Two main issues are addressed: the extent to which subjects felt actually present in height situations, and the efficacy of the treatment conducted using virtual height situations. Acrophobia, a simple phobia, is characterized by marked anxiety upon exposure to heights, by avoidance of heights, and by interference in functioning as a result of this fear. Behavioral therapy of acrophobia has included exposing the subject to anxiety-producing stimuli while allowing this anxiety to attenuate. In vivo graded exposure is a common and effective treatment for acrophobia. For example, if a patient is afraid of heights, therapy sessions might begin by having the patient look through a third floor window with the therapist present. In subsequent sessions, the patient might move up to a window on the tenth floor. Other common locations for in vivo therapy are outside stairways, balconies, bridges, and elevators. The authors designed a number of virtual height situations to correspond to the types used for in vivo stimuli. The study yielded remarkable results, in particular, the sense of presence experienced by subjects. Subjects experienced a range of physical anxiety symptoms consistent with the apparent threat they encountered. Subject responses were also apparently modified, as evidenced by the decrease in anxiety, avoidance, and negative attitudes toward heights. The results also support the notion that more elements of the fear structure are changed than those directly addressed in therapy.
Virtual Environment, Acrophobia, Presence, Exposure Therapy

R. Kooper et al., "Virtual Environments for Treating the Fear of Heights," in Computer, vol. 28, no. , pp. 27-34, 1995.
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