Clinical psychologist Dr. Alex Alvarado taught himself VR video production because he wanted to make scary movies.
He wasn't after thrills and suspense, though. He was after the unique power that VR offered to help recreate his clients' greatest fears.
He saw that realistic VR was the ultimate tool for exposure therapy — a practice where people are exposed to the source of their anxiety in a controlled situation, until the repeated exposure ultimately helps them to deconstruct and break free from their fear.
We talked to Dr. Alvarado about his experience creating VR and the potential it holds to improve people's lives.
Tell us about what you use Insta360 cameras and VR video for in your psychology practice.
I use the Insta360 Pro to recreate my clients' phobias so that they can experience their feared situation or object in the safety of my office. It might help for me to explain how this is so effective. Phobias and PTSD are overcome through the process of experience. A person with either diagnosis has associated a certain object or situation (driving, flying, heights, dogs, public speaking, etc.) with danger. One of the most powerful ways to break this association is through experiential learning, experiencing the situation without the danger. VR video allows my clients to experience these situations in a realistic way, in the safety of my office. Not only does this break the "danger" associated with the object or situation, it also helps my clients build confidence. The more realistic the VR is, the better the prognosis. Insta360 has allowed me to personalize videos to my client's specific phobic needs and recreate it in HD.
Why is VR your tool of choice for exposing your clients to their fears? On a psychological level, what’s different about VR than a traditional video or another method of representing the fear?
Great question. The more immersed the client is during exposure therapy, the more effective treatment is. [Computer-generated] VR has really helped with this, but 360 cameras, in my opinion, have taken it a step further.
Many psychologists, even today, use imagination as a form of treatment for phobia and PTSD. In this type of treatment, the therapist helps the client imagine the scenarios in as much detail as possible to mimic real-life situations that cause them discomfort. This obviously has its limits due to the lack of immersion. If the patient does not feel immersed in the imaginary scenario, it is significantly less likely to cause them to experience the emotions which they relate to their phobia.
[Computer-generated] virtual reality therapy took this one step further by truly immersing the client into a virtual world. There are companies that create video-game quality worlds and apply them to fear-inducing scenarios. These worlds are as detailed as the manufacturer makes them. However, this has limitations as well. The graphics that are used look to be that of an early 2000's video game. I'm familiar with a few of these companies and while using their products I had difficulty because many of my clients couldn't take this virtual world seriously. Also, these virtual worlds are extremely generalized and may not be applicable to everyone. For instance, the airport that a program uses may look completely different than the airport my client will be experiencing in real life.
These limitations are non-existent when I use an Insta360 camera. Insta360 cameras allow me to immerse my clients into the actual world with UHD quality. You cannot get more realistic than that! I am also able to tailor the exposure therapy uniquely to each client. I have a client who is specifically fearful of driving over a certain bridge in New York City, the Brooklyn Bridge. Using the Insta 360 ONE, I was able to create my own video for this client of my experience driving over the Brooklyn Bridge that addresses all of his needs.
What kind of progress have you seen in your clients after exposing them to their fears in VR?
VR exposure therapy has been crucial for the treatment of many of my clients. Chances of a good prognosis have increased and I've also seen a dramatic decrease in the length of treatment.
Had you had any experience in VR or video production before using the Insta360 Pro?
I have never had any video production experience, but I've definitely learned a lot from using Insta360 cameras.
What advice would you give to other psychologists interested in introducing VR into their practices?
Do it. With how easy to use, accessible, and affordable good VR cameras are, there is little reason not to.
Aside from addressing fears, are there other applications of VR in psychology that you see promise in exploring?
I feel as if there are abundant ways that VR can be used in the field of psychology. I have a friend who recently became a quadriplegic, and with VR he can still experience some destinations that might be considered inaccessible to him now. VR could also be used to calm people by inserting them into a relaxing environment. I recently read an article about how doctors were using VR to distract children as they were getting needle shots. For athletes, visualization is a large part in preparing for successful performances. It might be more beneficial having an athlete experience these successful performances repeatedly in a VR environment, especially if it is actual footage.
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