By turning a smartphone into a virtual reality device, a group of developers and psychologists aim to help people overcome their deepest fears by clicking on an app.

Psychologists use a behavioral therapy technique called desensitization to help people with phobias overcome their fears. The therapy involves gradual exposure to the object of fear or situations that elicit fearful responses or recall stressful experiences. The therapy may be effective, but it may also be risky and costly, and often requires face-to-face interaction between the clinician and the patient.

Some therapists are turning to the simulated world of virtual reality exposure therapy to mitigate the risk, cost and ethical concerns associated with the traditional, real-world approach.

The team at Phobious wants to make it even simpler by placing this intervention at the hands of the person without necessarily getting help from a therapist. One can start the app at home or anywhere, anytime, without having to make an appointment or make the commute to your therapist’s office for a session.

Phobious developers created a virtual reality headset that incorporates a smartphone and 3D goggles that allow the wearer to enter an immersive virtual world. Users can download either the iPhone or Android app when it is launched in September this year.

Phobious, part of DreamIt Health Baltimore 2014, will initially offer a consumer-facing tool that “will concentrate on phobias from insects and public speaking to needles,” according to Med City News. A clinician-facing component is also being developed pending additional funding.

An app user can pick from any of a total of 19 phobias and receive treatment with unlimited sessions for $49. The 3D goggles pack ups the cost to $149, while a whole 3D kit with two psychology sessions from a trained mental health professional will cost the user $299.

While virtual reality therapy has been successful in treating some people with phobias and anxiety, the company is putting up a disclaimer that its 3D virtual reality platform may not be as successful. However, it will seek FDA clearance for its product for use by people suffering from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to Med City News.

Virtual reality therapy (VRT) has been used as a mental health tool by clinicians for quite some time with considerable effectiveness.

“Gradual exposure to an anxiogenic stimuli, such as a situation you are afraid of, is safe and the most effective way. It is the method most commonly chosen by therapists around the world to treat anxiety disorders such as phobias, OCD and PTSD. Their therapeutic efficacy is at 90% in some types of phobia,” according to the Phobious website.

“In this way, virtual reality is used in exposure treatments for over 20 years and its effectiveness is demonstrated by numerous studies by prestigious international institutions, universities and hospitals,” added the Phobious team, who is working with therapists from Stanford University and Johns Hopkins University to further develop their VR product.

However, the cost and complexity of building these machines have prevented wide adoption. Technology companies and their vast resources may just be what VR needs to be used by the masses for a wide variety of applications, including health care. Most notably, Facebook recently acquired Oculus Rift for $2 billion to develop the leading VR platform.

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