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Last Updated: Monday, 3 November, 2003, 00:13 GMT
Help in sight for spider phobia
Image courtesy of University of Washington
Hunter Hoffman helps one arachnophobe face their fears
Coming face to face with a spider has long been regarded as one of the best ways of overcoming any fear of the eight-legged creature.

Try telling that to the countless number of people who scream or run a mile at the mere sight of one.

But now scientists in the United States believe they may have found a way around the problem.

They have created a virtual reality spider to help arachnophobes overcome their darkest fears more easily.

Real fear

In order to beat that fear, arachnophobes must first step into "Spiderworld".

This is the virtual reality world created by scientists at the University of Washington.

It consists of a bright kitchen, which at first sight is welcoming and warm.

But no sooner has the visitor stepped inside than a spider is seen scurrying across the floor.

In the first session, visitors are urged to follow rather than confront their fear head on.

They are told to move around the kitchen with the ultimate aim of trying to get within arms reach of the hairy animation.

In the second session, they are encouraged to become braver.

Could you come face to face with a tarantula?
This time, they are given a virtual bucket.

When they set down the bucket a large spider with wriggly legs descends from above. When they pick the bucket back up, it disappears.

The visitor practices picking up and setting down the bucket until they get used to the spider.

In the final session, the visitor is confronted with a virtual tarantula.

This is no ordinary tarantula though. It is the size of their fist and eats birds as a snack.

They are asked to reach out and grab the virtual spider.

At the same time, their real hand grasps a furry model of the tarantula.

"For them, the virtual spider was furry and solid," said Hunter Hoffman, one of the scientists behind Spiderworld.

The scientists have tested out their virtual reality therapy on eight people with a phobia of spiders.

Before their journey into Spiderworld, most of these people were unable to come within five feet of a tarantula housed inside a glass cage.

After their experience, they were able to come within six inches of it.

The study is published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction.

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