Immersed in stress relief

University of Reading scientists are bringing to life a ‘virtual Iraq’ to aid traumatised soldiers and military staff recover once they return from duty.

The virtual Iraq simulation, developed at the University of Southern California (USC) but now being put into practice at Reading, is fully-immersive and designed as part of an exposure therapy programme which allows soldiers suffering post-traumatic stress disorder to relive and confront psychological trauma – and it has produced promising results for the first handful of patients treated.

Professor Paul Sharkey, a Director of the University of Reading’s Visualisation Centre has been working with Professors Albert “Skip” Rizzo and Jarrell Pair from the USC Institute for Creative Technologies to port the software – which recreates the sights, smells, sounds and jolts of the battlefield – from USC’s headset-delivered application to one which can be delivered via a fully immersive 3mtr Å~ 3mtr virtual room (called the ReaCToR) at Reading’s Visualisation Centre.

Professor Sharkey said: ‘Through asking patients to wear headsets, there is a potential risk of heightening the trauma, as this is akin to putting on a helmet in the field. We will initially be investigating any possible advantage to be gained by further diminishing the effects of initial re-exposure through the avoidance of using helmet technology.

‘While the initial phase of the project will be focused on the display technologies, it is hoped that this will lead to pilot studies with therapists and psychologists to test the efficacy of the approach as a tool for therapy.’

The system allows patients to experience combat scenarios in a “low threat” context, where exposure of the patient is carefully controlled by psychologists.

The USC treatment sees patients talk through their trauma with a therapist while wearing goggles that immerse them in a virtual reality battlefield. The therapist can add smells, sights and sounds.

These can include roadside bombs, specific odours such as gunpowder, cordite, burning rubber, Iraqi spices and body odour, and specific sounds such as gunfire and helicopters buzzing overhead. So far four of those treated have responded positively and seen some improvement in their symptoms.

The focus of the research at Reading will be to investigate the possible advantages to be gained through re-exposure using different display technologies that remove the requirement for patients to wear Head Mounted Displays (HMDs).

Professor Rizzo said: ‘So far, the results of the project have been encouraging and our partnership with Professor Sharkey opens the door for making the system available on a wider international scale as needed. Our collaboration with Paul will provide us with new information as to how best to deliver virtual worlds that maximize the therapeutic effects of virtual Iraq for those in need.

‘We’re taking something that was already developed at USC and retooling it for a different purpose.

‘It just makes sense to see the application go full circle like this. Our aim here is not to re-traumatize people, but rather to re-expose them to relevant traumatic events in a graduated way that they can handle. You want to help people manage their emotional responses in a way that makes them more functional in their day-to-day lives and relationships.

‘For example, when a car backfires, you want to help a patient get to the point where he doesn’t have a flashback of a gun going off.’