Oxford VR uses virtual reality to treat social anxiety

Oxford VR (OVR), a U.K.-based virtual reality (VR) startup that emerged from Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry back in 2017, has officially launched a VR-based therapy to help people overcome social anxiety.

While VR is still largely a nascent technology outside of gaming in terms of mainstream adoption, health care is one area where it has been making real inroads involving practical applications. OVR’s core raison d’être is to build immersive technology that improves people’s mental health, and the company raised $13 million last month to help push its technology into health care systems around the world. With today’s news, the company is showing how VR could wind into the mainstream through industries such as health care, as its social engagement VR technology is already being used by major health organizations such as the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS).

“Our vision is to turn the tide on life-interrupting mental illnesses, pushing the boundaries of clinical excellence and new technology to transform lives,” noted June Dent, director of clinical partnerships at OVR.

Social impact

Social anxiety disorder, which is characterized by an intense fear of social scenarios, is thought to impact around 15 million people in the U.S. alone. It is also closely associated with other mental health conditions, such as agoraphobia, depression, panic disorder, and schizophrenia. With its social engagement therapy, OVR is looking to use simulated environments to help people engage with situations similar to how they might in the real world.

OVR social engagement is delivered to patients through weekly half-hour sessions. Each user puts on a VR headset, where they’re greeted by a virtual coach who asks them to complete a range of tasks, such as traveling on a bus, buying groceries, ordering from a bar, or going to a GP’s surgery. These kinds of situations are common triggers for people with social anxiety.

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“The immersive nature of VR provides a powerful new way to engage users and helps them to regain confidence, feel safe and overcome trigger situations,” Dent added.

Above: Oxford VR uses simulated environments to help people overcome social anxiety disorders

Above: Oxford VR uses simulated environments, such as buying goods in a cafe, to help people overcome social anxiety disorders

The program, which is designed on evidence-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), was developed by a team of clinicians, programmers, designers, artists, and animators, and builds upon 20 years of clinical research from the company’s cofounder and chief commercial officer Daniel Freeman, who is also a professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University’s department of psychiatry.

Scalability

Perhaps most crucially here is that the social engagement therapy is entirely automated, insofar as a qualified clinician need not be present — it can be delivered by a member of staff who has been trained to set up the VR headset. And given the affordability of VR headsets today, with an Oculus Go starting at around $200, leaning on VR as a treatment option will be viable for many health care providers — and further down the road, this could also open the door to remote home treatments.

OVR’s social engagement therapy is already being deployed by the NHS via its Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) initiative, while a number of private U.K. health care providers are also using the service. Further afield, OVR is working with the University of Colorado’s National Mental Health Innovation Center, which is deploying the program through its network of community-focused providers, as well as AXA HK and the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Asia.

Aside form social anxiety disorders, OVR has carried out other clinical trials in the past, including VR-based treatment for those with a fear of heights, which is now available to some NHS patients in the U.K. The company is also developing similar programs for treating depression, OCD, among other mental health conditions.

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