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Wednesday, November 17, 1999 Published at 15:49 GMT


Health

Psychologists predict virtual future

Virtual reality techniques could help mentally ill people

Psychologists have been slow to exploit the benefits of virtual reality techniques, although they could provide a vital tool for treating a range of problems, says an expert.

Professor David Rose of the University of East London says the main reason for the slow take-up has been cost.

But the falling price of computers and programmes has now brought them within the grasp of most university departments, he says.

He predicts that there will be a big rise in psychologists' use of the technique in the next few years. "It is a real growth area," he told BBC News Online.

The progammes have already been used in a number of areas, including the treatment of people with brain injuries, eating disorders and phobias.

"Programmes are able to create or recreate a very life-like approximation to a real situation," said Professor Rose.

He added that they were a safe way of tackling some phobias, such as fear of heights.

"Instead of having to take a person to the top of a tall building which could be dangerous, you can create a virtual lift effect and gradually increase the height," he said.

Brain injuries

He has been working on programmes for training people with learning difficulties and for people who have suffered head injuries.

The programme for people with head injuries helps trigger their memory for coping with basic tasks, such as negotiating their way around a hospital or rehabilitation unit.

Using a joystick, they can find their way around a virtual rehabilitation unit.

Virtual reality is also being used to assess the functional level of people with head injuries.

And some psychologists are using them to treat problems such as eating disorders and sexual dysfunction.

Programmes to treat eating disorders focus on the idea that people with anorexia have a distorted image of their own body.

Patients may be shown a picture of their own body so that they can compare it with that of other people or they may be asked to create their ideal body.

In one programme, they are in a house and can only move to another room if they are able to measure their proportions correctly.

Stroke

In the future, Professor Rose says virtual reality techniques could be used for stroke victims which could help health workers decide whether a person would be able to manage at home when they were discharged from hospital.

He said digital pictures could be taken of the person's home and a virtual mock-up of their home recreated on the computer.

They could then wander around their home and health workers could assess their reactions, for example, if they would remember to turn off the kettle.

Professor Rose says more research is needed into whether people using virtual reality techniques can then transfer them to the real world.

He says there could be dangers, for example, a child taught to cross a road using a virtual reality programme might think they could not be harmed or killed if they were hit by a car.

"We have to make sure the things we want them to learn are learnt," he said.





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