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Crippled by a Fear of Heights? This VR App Can Help

Using images taken by drones, the app exposes people to height situations in 360 degrees.

Your heart beats faster, your palms get sweaty, and your knees start to shake. These are all sensations that some people get when facing heights.

Now, however, there is help on the way. Researchers from the University of Basel have developed a virtual reality app for smartphones to help people deal with their fear of heights. The researchers estimate that approximately 5% of the general population experiences a debilitating fear of heights.

However, these people rarely seek the help they need to overcome these crippling fears because this particular fear is hard to deal with. Indeed, how do you create a safe height scenario without putting a patient in danger? You can't exactly bring someone to the edge of a high window or balcony.

This is where the team's virtual reality app comes in. Using images taken by drones, the app exposes people to height situations in 360 degrees. The smartphone app is combined with a virtual reality headset to provide a realistic setting.

During the experience, the smartphone keeps going to increasingly higher heights while giving the user time to acclimatize himself to each new height.  To study this app, the researchers created two trial groups.

One ascended the Uetliberg lookout tower near Zurich using the virtual app and the other did not. After approximately four hours of training, the group that had used the app proved to be a lot less afraid of ascending than the one who had not.

This is by no means a new treatment. Researchers have been using virtual reality to treat fear of heights for more than two decades. “What is new, however, is that smartphones can be used to produce the virtual scenarios that previously required a technically complicated type of treatment, and this makes it much more accessible,” explained Dr. Dorothée Bentz, lead author of the study.

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The study was published in the journal NPJ Digital Medicine.

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