A team of researchers have developed a virtual reality (VR)-based app for smartphones to reduce fear of heights.
The findings indicated that trial participants who spent a total of four hours training with the app at home had an improvement in their ability to handle real height situations.
“What is new, however, is that smartphones can be used to produce the virtual scenarios that previously required a technically complicated type of treatment, and this makes it much more accessible,” said lead author Dorothee Bentz, from the University of Basel in Switzerland.
Fear of heights is a widespread phenomenon. Approximately 5 per cent of the general population experiences a debilitating level of discomfort in height situations.
For the study, published in the journal NPJ Digital Medicine, the team developed a smartphone-based virtual reality exposure therapy app called Easyheights.
The app uses 360-degree images of real locations, which the researchers captured using a drone. People can use the app on their own smartphones together with a special virtual reality headset.
During the virtual experience, the user stands on a platform that is initially one meter above the ground. After allowing acclimatization to the situation for a certain interval, the platform automatically rises. In this way, the perceived distance above the ground increases slowly but steadily without an increase in the person’s level of fear.
The research team studied the efficacy of this approach in a randomized, controlled trial. Fifty trial participants with a fear of heights either completed a four-hour height training programme.
The efficacy of the Easyheights training proved comparable to that of conventional exposure therapy, the team said.
The results from the study suggest that the repeated use of a smartphone-based virtual reality exposure therapy can greatly improve the behaviour and subjective state of well-being in height situations, they added.