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Virtual reality therapy is coming. One academic’s predictions of how this will transform health care.

Visitors test the Oculus virtual reality headset during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Feb. 22. (Luis Gene/AFP/Getty Images)

Technologists have called 2016 the year of virtual reality. In the spring, with the release of high-end consumer headsets, such as the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, ordinary people will finally be able to test out the technology we’ve been waiting for since the 1990s.

While the biggest chunk of the estimated $80 billion market for VR and so-called augmented reality will be fed by the demand for video game tech, the second biggest share will go to health-care applications.

“What clinical VR provides is the opportunity to put a patient into a world that is different from where they’re sitting — one that is designed to have some therapeutic ingredient built into it,” said Albert “Skip” Rizzo, director for medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies.

Scientists like Rizzo have been anticipating VR’s disruption of health care since the technology was first introduced over 20 years ago. He has worked on VR applications for post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, physical rehabilitation, emotional coping and even job interview training.

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In some forms of VR therapy, like with exposure-therapy for PTSD sufferers, the experience is about subjecting the patient to their anxiety-triggers in a safe, controlled environment. For military veterans with PTSD, this often takes the form of recreating elements from war-time scenarios.

“We’re trying to create the context so that they can confront the process in the safety of a clinical environment,” Rizzo said. “This way the patient can reprogram that experience of the world so that when someone puts a hand on their shoulder, they’re not jumping out of their skin.”

Other promising forms of clinical VR, Rizzo explains, give patients the opportunity to do things that maybe they can’t do in real life.

Say, for example, that you’ve got issues with your mother, and the idea of calling her up and being assertive with her about your feelings makes you want to crawl into a hole. You could put on a headset, and the VR app will serve you a virtual version of your mother, complete with her face as the avatar. The voice may be different, but your “virtual Mom” will role-play with you, so that you can practice confronting her and work through your emotions together.

Testing for attention deficit disorder is another way clinical VR has proven useful. Distractions can be systematically programmed in, allowing clinicians to better measure and assess failures in attention.

Yet another type of VR therapy caters to pain distraction. Burn care, specifically the physical therapy after skin grafts, is excruciatingly painful. But studies have found that when patients receive care while immersed in VR, patients’ pain dropped precipitously.

Rizzo said perhaps the most important advantage of VR therapy is that it lowers the barrier of access to mental health care for patients. Patients who aren’t comfortable speaking directly to a therapist because of stigma or fear of judgment, may be more willing to ask for help through a computer.

“I used to want to say VR is better than traditional forms of therapy, but I don’t really care about that anymore,” Rizzo said. “I’m more focused on providing options that will draw people into treatment that they can benefit from, and to do this in a way that breaks down barriers to care. Because not everyone reacts the same way to therapy.”

Current VR technology can build compelling virtual worlds, but the next big challenge for this industry will be about populating those worlds with artificially intelligent human characters. It will be a tall order, Rizzo said, considering we’ve spent the last 100 years studying how humans interact with other humans in the real world, and we’ve still only begun to scratch the surface. How humans interact with virtual humans is a whole new field of study.

Some of these clinical VR programs could be available to consumers later this year.

One buzzed-about app slated for release this year is DEEP, a meditative VR experience that is controlled by slow, yogic breathing. The game tracks breathing by a band worn around the user’s stomach. As the user breathes in and out, they control their movement through a vivid underwater landscape.

One of the app’s creators, Owen Harris, said he has already found the app to be an effective anxiety-reducer for himself and many others. The app is currently undergoing more formal research testing and will be released to therapeutic centers later this year.

“The implications for clinical virtual reality therapy are huge,” Harris said. “Soon we will be able to face our fears, tame our demons, and immerse ourselves in whatever nurturing environment we need at the time.”

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