3rd International Conference

Digital Culture & AudioVisual Challenges

Interdisciplinary Creativity in Arts and Technology

Online, May 28-29, 2021

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Virtual Reality in Psychology: A case study on acrophobia through an artistic approach
Date and Time: 29/05/2021 (16:20-18:00)
Konstantina Vetsiou, Manthos Santorineos


VR tools are increasingly utilized in the field of psychology unravelling their social benefits (Riva 2022). This paper surveys the usage and potential of VR tools in different fields of psychology. A case study of a VR project based on acrophobia through which low-cost mechanisms and their effectiveness are examined.

The aim of the paper is to survey the current state in the field of VR tools utilized in psychology and present an ongoing research project on acrophobia while reviewing the efficacy of utilizing low-cost equipment and VR for studying user’s response regarding fear of heights.
The usage of VR in various areas of psychology has been increased significantly (Wilson and Soranzo 2015). VR can be utilized on overcoming anxiety disorders and specific phobias as an effective tool (Powers and Emmelkamp 2008, Opriş, Pintea et al. 2012, Carl, Stein et al. 2019), also for acrophobia, by gradually exposing the user to the phobic stimuli (Riva, Botella et al. 2015). Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy has become an alternative to exposure in vivo (Riva 2022). VR offers researchers a tool for creating multiple stimuli, greater environmental and stimuli control, user “isolation”, safety and ecological validity (Riva, Botella et al. 2015).
Combining all of the above, a virtual scenery with gradual height exposure was created for testing and recording response of phobic and non-phobic participants. User response, fidelity of graphics, level of immersion and equipment responsiveness are examined accordingly.

A comprehensive and detailed literature review is conducted in order to trace the state-of-the-art in the usage of VR in psychology in general. Several studies are examined, especially on generating stimuli in VR, technological tools for capturing and evaluating user response, the efficacy of the utilization of low-cost equipment, the utilization of VR in anxiety disorders, specific phobias like acrophobia.
Considering the aforementioned studies and their findings, a rough framework on the potential of those tools in research has been formed as a VR project based on acrophobia, through an artistic approach. The project is based on a gradual exposure to fear stimuli, as the scenes present a progressive increase in the challenge of heights. Participants, after completing the height exposure tasks, answered a brief questionnaire in order to rate their anxiety compared to the height-related situations. Oculus Rift was used alongside Kinect in order to enhance immersion and the graphics were created in 3DSMax and exported for the Unity3D engine.

The acrophobia project has been exhibited during the eLIFE2016 and EuroVR2016 Conferences, the 81st Thessaloniki International Fair exhibition, Researcher's Night 2017 and VR@GR conference exhibition in Onassis Cultural Center in 2018. During the exhibition of the project, it was found that the user experienced a variety of classic anxiety symptoms such as shivering, shaking and sweating in response to the virtual environment. In this approach, it was observed that low fidelity graphics would not affect the user experience, but this however depends on the sophisticated mechanics design with up-to-date tracker technology that is essential on improving the feeling of immersion. Furthermore, by using low-cost equipment, one can achieve an effective result in visualizing different research scenarios.
Over 100 people have participated in this virtual experience. Most of them did not suffer from any type of phobias, whereas a small amount of people suffered from fear of heights, while some of them displaying severe acrophobic responses. The majority of the participants were male with an average of 60% while most of the people were under the age of 40. A few subjects suffering from acrophobia were unable to complete all of the levels, whereas some needed to sit down in order to continue. Moreover, many phobic persons asked to skip a level that caused them distress or asked for guidance. Women compared to men faced slightly more difficulty in navigating and felt a lack of balance more often.
Though the aforementioned project of acrophobia is on early stages and through a small sample it is not safe to draw definite conclusions, nevertheless, initial data provided some useful insights regarding response of acrophobic and non-acrophobic users, the level of immersion, the efficiency of the techniques, the fidelity of graphics and whether VR is effective as a tool in inducing emotional responses. The next step is to further integrate and assess data in real–time within a VR system that will allow response to be immediate and evaluated as such, to adjust stimuli accordingly, proving to be a significant benefit for all the related research fields such as treating anxiety disorders.


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