Virtual Reality & Mental Health—What You Should Know

The widespread emergence of virtual reality (VR) has gotten people talking about all kinds of exciting developments. From gaming and entertainment to education and healthcare, there are innumerable areas in which VR may well change our lives. But as it develops, one of the most interesting areas to focus on may just be mental health.

What’s The State Of VR’s Rollout?

People commonly talk about VR as if it represents an era in technology with a definite starting point. We’re in about the third straight year that someone will label the “Year of VR,” and it makes it a little difficult to keep track of specific developments and their significance. The best way to outline things is simple. The age of virtual reality kicked off during the 2016 Game Developers Conference, when the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive were publicly unveiled. The PlayStation VR was soon to follow, and we were off to the races.

Since then there haven’t been many significant product or hardware releases. Rather, the companies behind the major headsets have focused on refining virtual reality experiences and making them more accessible. Most still believe price points need working on (these high-end headsets and the systems they run alongside are very expensive). And developers are still working, and will be working for some time, on making VR experiences sharper and more convincing. The best way to characterize the state of the industry in mid-2017 is that VR has fully arrived, but is still positioning itself for the early years of its existence.

Where Is It Making An Impact?

It may go without saying that the early impact of VR is primarily in gaming. But it doesn’t always look the way you might expect. However, that doesn’t mean that Oculus and Vive headsets are flying off the shelves and people are diving into high-powered VR titles at home. These systems are expensive and, while they’re popular, they aren’t close to replacing or matching other mainstream gaming consoles just yet.

On the other hand some more stripped down experiences are performing well. We’ve already seen that virtual reality represents the next frontier of casino gaming, and will take the game off of browsers and into 3D environments. We’ve also seen app developers focusing on small but beautiful interactive games that are well suited to some of the more affordable headsets that are compatible with smartphones. Gaming is dominating, but it’s the little titles that help people to feel out VR that are among the most popular at this stage.

What Is The Potential In Mental Health?

Naturally, with VR still figuring itself out and gaming generating most of the headlines, the concept of VR helping with mental health is still on the back burner. But that doesn’t mean it’s not on the way. As VR is refined over time, we’re going to see it used in some more serious areas, and mental health is one such area that some are excited about.

How can it help? Well, the basic thinking that’s going around is based on what we know about treating mental health issues and psychological disorders. The most powerful changes in treatment are said to occur when people are presented with the situation that causes them distress. This can’t be done by conventional means in a doctor’s office or therapy center; a therapist can only recommend ways in which a patient can interact with stressful situations. But with VR, therapists could become much more hands-on with this style of therapy.

It’s important to remember that the true wonder of VR is not that it allows us to casually try out new things. It’s that it can actually temporarily trick our brains into feeling like we’re in new environments facing situations that feel very real. There’s a spooky side to that, of course, but where therapy is concerned the implications are incredible. People treating mental health disorders may soon be able to supply stressful but therapeutic exercises in an incredibly realistic manner, and yet within a controlled environment.

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