Explore a virtual room. Then explore an elevated alleyway with a step that suddenly has you plummeting. Next, using a virtual flashlight, walk around a dark maze with a figure lurking in certain places. Sounds like a bad dream? It’s actually a science experiment that utilizes virtual reality to test stress response.
Each of the above scenarios was what participants experienced during the study. Each scenario progressively injected more stress. The individual’s response was measured throughout each virtual experience. Virtual reality to test stress levels is actually pretty convenient, and, obviously, a safer option than placing an individual in a possible stressful real-life situation.
How Was Stress Measured?
The study—or experiment—relied on the first two virtual simulations to predict the stress response in the third. Apparently, analyzing the heart rate during the first two stressful situations allowed scientists to guess how participants would react and respond during the, arguably, most stressful situation. Stress was measured via heart rate.
According to an article in Science Daily, the stress response also was used to predict the stress outcome of participants when they engaged in another virtual challenge. This time, they had to answer questions (math!) and they were shown the results of other participants. If they answered incorrectly, the virtual floor started to disappear.
Researchers concluded that “…the present study emphasizes the power of behavior to predict HRV responsiveness to a subsequent stressful challenge. Thus, in addition to highlighting behavior as a potential stress vulnerability marker, our study contributes a relevant approach to develop diagnostic tests based on VR immersion and machine learning modeling.”
While the study looked at stress response to predict future responses, virtual reality also has been used in other—somewhat similar—ways by doctors.
Virtual Reality to Desensitize Fears and Help PTSD
Virtual reality has been used in the treatment of anxiety disorders to help individuals gradually overcome fears and anxiety. Virtual reality provides a safe environment, and allows the therapist to remain in control (in case the patient becomes too stressed).
The book “Virtual Reality Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: Advances in Evaluation and Treatment” discusses ways that this technology can be used to help those who suffer from agoraphobia or fears of spiders, driving, flying, heights, etc.
Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) also is being studied regarding effectiveness of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans. This type of therapy allows safe exposure to sounds or scenes of combat. In 2010, the United States Army announced “… a four-year study to determine the effectiveness of VRET on active-duty servicemembers returning from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom who are suffering from PTSD.” The study would enroll 120 servicemembers.
Virtual Reality as a Relaxation Aid
While virtual reality is being used to help those who have anxiety or service members who suffer from PTSD, the technology also may be used as a means to guide relaxation. The virtual realm provides a safe way to experience and face events or scenes that create a stress response, but it also can be used to help individuals enjoy some stress-free experiences.
In fact, Oculus offers Relax VR, which is a program/experience that allows the individual to enter the virtual realm for guided meditation. Scenes and sounds from the beach, chirping crickets, calming wind and even a relaxing stream can lull a sense of calm during meditation and relaxation. The experience also can be used in spas or maybe even wellness centers.
Living through a pandemic has forced many individuals to get creative with their social lives. Virtual chats via Zoom or other platforms have taken the place of face-to-face meetups. Even dates have gone virtual.
When museums were closed, virtual tours became the next best thing. Maybe you couldn’t walk through the Louvre, but you could take a virtual stroll through the museum’s notable galleries. Even the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling can be viewed virtually.
Virtual might not replicate the in-person experience, but when it was the only option, the virtual world was probably a welcome escape from the four walls of home. And with the normalization of the virtual experience, perhaps the future could be marked by more virtual activities.
Not everyone has access to the financial means to take luxurious vacations or visit remote retreats for a week of relaxation. That private bungalow on an exotic beach that was once reserved for the one percent might, in the future, be accessible to the other 99 percent, too.
Could virtual reality be a ticket to a world that was unknown to many? Especially to those who had limited financial means?
As technology becomes more affordable, more individuals have been granted access to the digital realm via the internet and cell phones. Years ago, owning a smartphone was a luxury. Today, the majority of teens have a smartphone. In fact, nearly 100 percent of teens have one.
Virtual reality headsets are not owned by everyone, and their price point may be out of range for many budgets. However, as this technology becomes the norm—and it might become the norm—the access to virtual reality may come at a price that many can afford.
The movie “Strange Days” depicted a future world where virtual reality experiences became an addictive drug. Users wore a headpiece (a bit like a skull cap) that tapped into their brain. Compact discs held memories, events or activities that users could experience.
While virtual reality likely won’t become an addiction, the technology could become a window into new experiences. Imagine using a headset to walk through a museum in Europe. Have the kids put on their headsets, too, and everyone can take a tour. A virtual family outing!
Or imagine going on a virtual retreat in a remote island with access to the best fitness experts. Or practice guided meditation with a group of individuals from across the globe. Want to learn how to surf? Maybe you can do that safely with a virtual instructor.
Does virtual reality somehow tap into our senses in the future? Can we feel the waves? Smell the ocean? Today’s virtual reality might not have all the sensory experiences of real life, but we also might not be too far off in developing a heightened technology that can recreate the sights, sounds and smells of life.
Virtual Shopping, Games & Even Training
Those with access to a virtual reality headset can already take advantage of many cool virtual experiences—even guided meditation. The Climb, for example, allows users to take on virtual climbing challenges, including buildings. Walkabout Mini Golf is a mini golf experience…perfect for quarantine!
But virtual reality isn’t just about games. The technology also lets users step into other experiences. Businesses use virtual reality experience during employee training; simulations help employees confront situations they may face on the job. And using virtual reality lets employees safely handle stressful experiences. Virtual reality even may help an employee learn how to handle a robbery.
Kentucky Fried Chicken uses a virtual escape room format in its training program. KFC also is apparently developing another virtual reality program called “The Hard Way.” A virtual Colonel will be giving directions, per Viar360.
While shopping isn’t necessarily a stressful situation, shopping online isn’t quite the same as shopping at the store. Virtual showrooms can provide a simulated in-person experience when the option to venture out is limited.
RelayCars allows car shoppers the opportunity to explore their favorite makes and models virtually. Through a virtual showroom, RelayCars lets consumers do a virtual walk around, peek inside the car at all the features and even change the paint hue. This virtual experience was a great resource for new car buyers when dealerships might have been closed to foot traffic during the pandemic.
Virtually Decreasing Stress On the Road
Virtual reality is even about to creep into our cars. Nissan’s Invisible-to-Visible technology might bring virtual avatars into the passenger spaces. Wearing special glasses or goggles, the driver could visualize these companions next to them. Friends and family may join the drive, even when they are across the country.
While I2V is still in development, the idea of virtual passengers could be quite comforting for those who are traveling alone. The stress of solo trips cross country and/or long business trips might be reduced if the driver could invite virtual passengers during the drive.
In addition, I2V also would allow virtual experts to join the drive to provide instruction on the road. If a driver needed assistance, help would be one seat over. This “service scenario” would allow for drivers to get help during the drive. The technology also would offer a “tourism scenario;” a virtual guide would appear in the vehicle to provide recommendations…maybe they could suggest a restaurant or a museum.
While researchers have studied virtual reality as a means to measure stress responses, this technology has wide-reaching and beneficial uses. Virtual reality therapies can be used to help individuals confront fears or even help those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Virtual reality also can be used to help provide an immersive relaxation experience in spas. The future of this technology may lead to everyone having access to a headset to explore many new activities, visit different countries or even enjoy the privilege of luxe experiences virtually. Virtual companions or passengers also may be in our future. In all these scenarios, virtual reality can be used to (hopefully) help decrease stress and increase happiness.