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Background: Therapeutic virtual reality (VR) has emerged as an efficacious treatment modality for a wide range of health conditions. However, despite encouraging outcomes from early stage research, a consensus for the best way to develop and evaluate VR treatments within a scientific framework is needed.

Objective: We aimed to develop a methodological framework with input from an international working group in order to guide the design, implementation, analysis, interpretation, and communication of trials that develop and test VR treatments.

Methods: A group of 21 international experts was recruited based on their contributions to the VR literature. The resulting Virtual Reality Clinical Outcomes Research Experts held iterative meetings to seek consensus on best practices for the development and testing of VR treatments.

Results: The interactions were transcribed, and key themes were identified to develop a scientific framework in order to support best practices in methodology of clinical VR trials. Using the Food and Drug Administration Phase I-III pharmacotherapy model as guidance, a framework emerged to support three phases of VR clinical study designs—VR1, VR2, and VR3. VR1 studies focus on content development by working with patients and providers through the principles of human-centered design. VR2 trials conduct early testing with a focus on feasibility, acceptability, tolerability, and initial clinical efficacy. VR3 trials are randomized, controlled studies that evaluate efficacy against a control condition. Best practice recommendations for each trial were provided.

Conclusions: Patients, providers, payers, and regulators should consider this best practice framework when assessing the validity of VR treatments.

JMIR Ment Health 2019;6(1):e11973



Clinical Trials; Consensus; Virtual reality;


Therapeutic virtual reality (VR) is an innovative treatment modality to manage a broad range of health conditions and is gaining considerable attention [1-19]. Users of VR wear a head-mounted display (HMD) with a close-proximity screen that creates a sense of being transported into life-like, three-dimensional worlds. VR has been used to assess and treat a wide variety of medical, surgical, psychiatric, and neurocognitive conditions including pain [1,2,4,9,13,18], addiction [20-25], anxiety disorders [3,6,7,14-15,26-34], schizophrenia [10,11,19,35-38], eating disorders [1,8,39-45], stroke rehabilitation [5,12,16-17,45-47], vestibular disorders [48], and movement disorders [49]. One of the first published uses of HMD-based therapy was the treatment of acrophobia in 1995 [50]. There have also been functional magnetic resonance imaging studies demonstrating the effect of VR on the brain during receipt of a painful stimuli [51,52]. VR is thought to work through a combination of distraction, extinction learning, cognitive-behavioral principles, mindful meditation, stress reduction, gate-control theory, and the spotlight theory of attention [53,54]. Importantly, VR has become increasingly portable, immersive, and vivid, which has enabled the technology to be used in a broad range of inpatient and outpatient applications.

As the use of therapeutic VR expands, it is essential that guidelines are established to ensure scientific rigor in the development and evaluation of VR applications, similar to established standards for pharmacotherapies [30,55]. VR developers would benefit from systematic guidance on best practices for designing and conducting VR clinical trials. To fulfil this unmet need, we garnered input from an international working group, called the Virtual Reality Clinical Outcomes Research Experts (VR-CORE) committee. This paper presents the resulting best practice framework informed by expert input, along with specific recommendations on ways to conduct high-quality VR treatment trials. Although the focus of this paper is VR, the framework also applies to other emerging “XR” technologies, including augmented reality and mixed reality, as the methodologic considerations for clinical trials are largely similar across XR platforms.


Identifying Virtual Reality Clinical Outcomes Research Experts

We performed a systematic review of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) using therapeutic VR to help identify eligible VR-CORE committee members through review of author lists. To cover the largest breadth of studies, the literature search focused on existing meta-analyses of therapeutic VR RCTs identified through search of PubMed, Google Scholar, and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews using a combination of keywords: (“virtual reality” OR “VR”) AND (“review [pt]” OR “systematic review [pt]” OR “meta-anal*” OR “metaanaly*”). Based on our literature search, and supplemented by recommendations from established experts, we developed a multidisciplinary group for the VR-CORE, including experts in fields relevant to developing and testing VR treatments such as user-centered design principles, software design, epidemiology, statistics, and clinical trial methodology. The committee was formulated to balance expertise across clinical disciplines (medicine, pediatrics, surgery, psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, anesthesia, nursing, and rehabilitation) and reflect multinational perspectives.

Collecting Input From the Virtual Reality Clinical Outcomes Research Experts

To obtain systematic feedback from the committee, a series of electronic meetings were held to collect and synthesize structured input. An iterative approach was modeled after similar processes were employed by our previous working groups in other fields of health care [56,57]. Using an online meeting platform that allows users to view and react to each other’s comments [58], committee members initially responded to open-ended “think aloud” prompts [59] (eg, “When you think about the current state of the clinical VR research, what comes to your mind?”), followed by increasingly specific probes prepared by the moderators (eg, “What should be the role of human centered design principles in developing VR treatments?”). The full set of questions and responses is listed in Multimedia Appendix 1. The active members of the VR-CORE at the time of this discussion are listed in the Acknowledgments section. Emergent themes and proposed methodologic best practices were culled from the online dialogue, and the resulting recommendations were distributed to the members for synthesis and iterative rephrasing.


Emergent Themes from Virtual Reality Clinical Outcomes Research Experts Meetings

Multimedia Appendix 1 provides excerpted transcripts of the VR-CORE responses to discussion topics. Key themes drawn from the online dialogue are summarized in the following sections.

Perceptions Regarding the Current State of Clinical Virtual Reality Research

Committee members described the current state of clinical VR research as the “Wild West” with a “lack of clear guidelines and standards.” The state of current VR research was described as “heterogeneous,” often focused “more on the tech rather than the theories behind it.” Committee members expressed concern that much of the current research is “merely descriptive” in nature, often insufficiently powered, focused on small case reports and retrospective analyses, and often does not employ experimental designs.

Perceptions About Ways to Improve Virtual Reality Literature

The committee believed it is vital to “include the patients’ voice early and often in the development of VR treatments” and that developers must “carefully, systematically, and meticulously seek the patients’ feedback” through participatory research and design thinking that involves multidisciplinary collaboration. The committee acknowledged the importance of including the voice of providers as well. The committee also called for better definitions and standardization of therapeutic VR study designs.

Most Important Considerations for Designing and Standardizing Clinical Virtual Reality Trials

The committee described various stages for developing and validating VR treatments, beginning with content development in partnership with end-users, progressing through initial clinical testing and safety evaluation, and ending with properly powered RCTs. The committee outlined a wide range of considerations for each stage (Multimedia Appendix 1), including the importance of standardizing control groups, selecting clinically relevant outcome measures, reporting which equipment was used in the trial, accounting for dropouts and disqualified participants, and allowing for pragmatic features of each study design.

Clinical Trial Framework of the Virtual Reality Clinical Outcomes Research Experts

The Framework

Although there are fundamental best practices in study design that apply to all biomedical intervention trials, the committee identified VR-specific attributes that are unique considerations for VR trials. Using the Food and Drug Administration Phase I-III pharmacotherapy model as guidance [55] and combining the results of literature synthesis with VR-CORE input, a framework emerged to support three phases of VR clinical study designs, named VR1, VR2, and VR3.

VR1 studies focus on content development by working with patient and provider end-users through principles of human-centered design. VR2 trials conduct early testing with a focus on feasibility, acceptability, tolerability, and initial clinical efficacy. VR3 trials are RCTs that compare clinically important outcomes between intervention groups and a control condition. Each study should undergo ethical review before initiation. Figure 1 summarizes each phase of the VR-CORE model. Best practice recommendations for each trial design are described below.

VR1 Studies

The committee strongly believes that therapeutic VR applications should be designed with direct input from patient and provider end-users. Lack of patient involvement, poor requirement definitions, and nonadaptation to user feedback are some of the common factors that explain failures of digital interventions [60]. Incorporating patients into the design process enables developers to increase the relevance and effectiveness of VR treatments. The committee stresses that VR treatments should be created with acknowledgment of patients’ knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, preferences, and expectations of therapeutic VR. VR-CORE refers to a VR1 study as one that results in the development of VR treatment in partnership with patient and provider end-users and follows best practices for patient-centered design.

After their review of the literature on human-centered design both generally [61,62] and in relation to digital [60] and VR interventions [63], the committee identified three key principles that are fundamental for developing “desirable, feasible and viable” VR treatments [61]. These principles promote empathy, team collaboration, and continuous user feedback (Table 1). The committee believes that the use of these principles allows development teams to better identify users’ needs, incorporate user feedback, and institute rapid cycle improvements that generate more relevant products at lower cost [64]. The key principles for VR1 studies are outlined in Table 1.

see original article for Table "Summary of design principles, strategies, and recommended best practices for VR1 studies"

The Design Process of Virtual Reality Treatments Should Promote Empathy

The committee believes that the more attuned a development team is to the specific perspective and needs of patients, the more likely they are to design meaningful VR treatments. Promoting empathy toward the design process involves carefully listening to and elucidating patients’ social environment, needs, fears, desires, habits, hopes, aspirations, and expectations. The committee recommends initiating the design process with an inspiration step, or exercise focused on culling patients’ voice and understanding their needs, struggles, and experiences. Table 1 describes best practices for sparking inspiration within the framework of empathy. Different patient profiles and scenarios should be included in this first step. Many techniques can be used to develop empathy and inspiration of the design team. These include qualitative assessments, observations, spending time with users, and conducting interviews and user experiments. In addition, a patient journey map can be used to illustrate the interpretation of a story from a patient’s perspective. The working group also recommends seeking input from relevant nonpatient end-users, including health care providers who may prescribe the VR treatment or interact with patient users.

The Design Process of Virtual Reality Treatments Should Promote Team Collaboration

The committee believes that team collaboration is fundamental for collectively designing a VR treatment and synthesizing data collected during the inspiration step. Brainstorming helps generate ideas from the initial corpus of data and findings. Table 1 describes best practices for ideation within the framework of team collaboration. The process of ideation allows team members to think expansively and divergently. As a range of ideas is generated, some ideas will be extreme or ambitious, whereas others will be achievable. Depending on the time and the available budget, the team decides what ideas should be prototyped further.

The Design Process of Virtual Reality Treatments Should Promote Continuous User Feedback

An effective VR treatment should be developed through continuous user feedback and iterative prototyping, thereby enabling the team to rapidly test their ideas during real-time assessment from end-users. Table 1 describes best practices for VR treatment prototyping within the framework of user feedback. Prototypes should be refined with continuous testing by patient end-users, and failures are viewed as a way to learn and improve the prototype to better meet users’ needs. Hence, the number of defects will tend to be lower and less costly in the future. To help facilitate the learning process for patients, it is recommended, when feasible, that the research team use a “mirroring” program [65] to allow the research staff to see what the patient is viewing through the VR headset and help them learn the user interface.

Briefly, the committee believes that the VR1 treatment design process should start with end-users. VR-CORE recommends specifying who the real users are and what they say, see, feel, and do. Hence, implementation of a patient-design approach is an important way to place users at the center of the VR design process. For researchers who are developing an open-source VR intervention that they would like to share with the academic community for collaborative V1 development process, the use of a software-development platform such as [66] and citation of the latest version of the program within the methods section of VR1 research papers are recommended. The committee also recommends use of the Integrate, Design, Assess, and Share checklist developed by Mummah and colleagues [60] as a supplemental, structured guide for conducting a VR1 study.

VR2 Trials

Once the research team has developed a VR treatment in partnership with end-users, the resulting product should undergo initial assessment in the target patient population within a representative clinical setting, herein termed a VR2 trial. Modeled after the work of Mosadeghi and colleagues [67], the purpose of VR2 trials is to conduct early testing with a focus on acceptabilityfeasibilitytolerability, and initial clinical efficacy prior to initiating a more definitive VR3 clinical trial. Although developers may opt to bypass a VR2 trial in lieu of a VR3 trial, there is a risk of subjecting an incompletely tested intervention to a larger and costlier RCT, and best practices in digital intervention development suggest an intermediary stage between initial VR design and definitive testing [60]. The following sections describe the features of a VR2 trial.

Clinical Setting

In contrast to a VR1 study, which is focused on collaborative content development in a design environment, the VR2 trial evaluates what happens when the VR treatment is placed in the hands of target patients within the intended clinical setting. For example, a VR treatment focused on management of inpatient pain should be tested in an inpatient environment. A VR treatment targeting outpatient stroke rehabilitation should be evaluated in locations where patients receive rehabilitation, such as in a physical therapy center or, if intended, at home. In short, a comprehensive VR2 trial evaluates the VR treatment in the natural setting(s) where the product is intended to be used. Table 2 summarizes the best practices for VR2.


In the context of a VR2 trial, acceptability refers to a patient’s willingness to use the VR treatment. Previous research on therapeutic VR reveals a drop off in the relation between patient eligibility to receive VR and patient willingness to try VR [67]. The disconnect emphasizes that many patients are uninterested in using novel health technologies such as VR, particularly when hospitalized or under duress. Among those who are eligible for a VR trial, some choose not to participate for a wide variety of reasons. Patients may express varying degrees of skepticism, fear, vulnerability, and concern regarding psychological consequences or simply not want to be bothered by the equipment [67]. In a VR2 trial, investigators collect data regarding patient willingness to try the VR treatment, including reasons why they did or did not find the intervention to be acceptable for use. Researchers should collect and report acceptability data using techniques such as focus groups, cognitive interviews, or structured questionnaires.


In the context of a VR2 trial, feasibility is the degree to which the VR treatment can be successfully integrated within the flow of usual care. The committee noted that even the best designed VR treatments can face implementation challenges when applied on the front lines of health care delivery [67]. It is wise for developers to understand potential barriers early and often, identify workarounds and solutions to these barriers, and only then consider testing their interventions in VR3 RCT trials. For example, patients and providers often seek information regarding the frequency and “dosing” of a VR treatment; these details could be manually collected in the context of a VR2 trial. Similarly, treatments deployed in a clinical environment may be unfamiliar to doctors, nurses, and other health care providers, giving researchers an opportunity to study the interaction among staff and proactively identify areas of confusion or misuse. The committee recommends including a table that enumerates patient, provider, technical, and operational barriers to use; identifies root causes; and offers solutions to enhance effectiveness in future clinical applications.


The VR2 trial offers an early opportunity to evaluate patient tolerability of the VR treatment, including both hardware and software components. Researchers should measure and report the prevalence of patient-reported physical (eg, vertigo, nausea, and “cybersickness”) and emotional (eg, fear and anxiety) adverse effects of the VR treatment, along with any discomfort or inconvenience related to the VR equipment (eg, ill-fitting headset, facial or nasal pain, inability to explore the three-dimensional environment fully due to limited mobility).

Cybersickness (or VR sickness) is a unique side effect of VR. There a several different terms used interchangeably within the literature, such as simulator sickness or “sim sickness,” although some believe they are different types of motion sickness [68]. When the vestibular system and oculomotor system notice a discrepancy between reality and the virtual environment, one or more of following symptoms ensue: eyestrain, nausea, fatigue, headache, blurred vision, and postural instability [69]. The specific mechanism of cybersickness is still unknown.

see original article for Table "Summary of best practice recommendations for VR2 trials"

Recommendations for developers already exist [70,71]: appropriately accelerate within the program [71,72], anticipate changes in direction [73], affect changes in the field of view [73], establish realistic virtual avatar movements, reduce drops in the frame rate below 60 fps [71], blur the display with movement [74], and provide other solutions at the level of program design. 

There are also several strategies for medical staff and researchers including habituation [75], assessment of the risk of side effects before the intervention [76], use of oculomotor exercises before the intervention [77], and diaphragmatic breathing during the intervention [78]. One of the most useful strategies is to limit the total duration of each treatment session, particularly early in the process [70]. 

The VR-CORE recommends assessing for side effects at every phase (VR1, VR2, and VR3). Regarding assessment scales, the Simulator Sickness Questionnaire is the most commonly used scale in the literature [70,72,75,76].

Initial Clinical Efficacy

Although the VR2 trial is not designed to definitively test whether a VR treatment is efficacious or effective, it offers an early opportunity to measure efficacy within the context of a small clinical trial. There is no requirement in a VR2 trial to include a control group, although uncontrolled case series carry a higher risk of bias than controlled studies; even studies with nonrandomized concurrent controls, “wait list” controls, or retrospective controls may reduce the risk of bias as compared to an uncontrolled series.

Regardless of the inclusion of a control group, investigators should identify a clinically relevant and validated patient- reported outcome (PRO) to evaluate the evidence of efficacy. For example, a study evaluating pain might include a standard 11-point numeric rating scale [79] before and after exposure to the VR treatment. A study evaluating stroke rehabilitation might measure physical function with the National Institutes of Health Patient Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System [80]. Selection of the most appropriate PRO is at the discretion of the research team, but should be carefully justified and capture the most salient features of patient-reported health that might improve with the VR treatment.

VR3 Trials

The most definitive clinical validation of a VR treatment is the VR3 trial, which is a prospective, adequately powered, methodologically rigorous RCT evaluating clinical outcomes and safety in target patients receiving the VR treatment as compared to a control condition. Although the therapeutic mechanism of action may be studied as a secondary goal in a VR3 trial (eg, through neuroimaging, blood biomarkers, and physiologic testing), the principal goal is to evaluate the treatment’s impact on a clinically meaningful patient outcome rather than surrogate markers.

Although the committee acknowledged understandable costs and resource barriers involved in conducting VR3 trials, there was broad agreement that RCTs are of equal scientific importance in therapeutic VR as any other form of treatment and should be prioritized whenever possible. Multicenter collaborations may facilitate VR3 trials by combining patients and resources through shared protocols. The features of a VR3 trials are described below and summarized in Table 3.

Standardization of Intervention and Patient Population

Having been developed in a VR1 study and initially tested in a VR2 trial, the study intervention should be clearly described in preparation for a VR3 trial. Researchers should provide details regarding the equipment used; visualizations employed (with representative screenshots or videos); and frequency, duration, and timing of use. Optimally, the intervention should be manualized, and at the very least, enough details should be provided to allow other investigators to repeat the trial, if desired. The Template for Intervention Description and Replication checklist provides a useful framework for describing study interventions [81] and should be applied to VR treatments. The target patient population should be clearly described, including explicit inclusion and exclusion criteria employed. Certain exclusion criteria may be standardized among VR trials, such as a history of significant motion sickness, active nausea, and vomiting or epilepsy.

Selection of Control Condition

The committee acknowledged that there is no perfect or standardized control condition for all VR treatment trials; the optimal control depends on the patient population, proposed mechanism of action of the intervention, and clinical setting, among other considerations. Selection of the control is at the discretion of the research team but should be justified and explained. The committee described a hierarchy of control conditions, ranging from “usual care” without any active intervention to passive visualizations on a two-dimensional screen and nonimmersive visualizations within a headset, immersive but passive experiences within a headset, and immersive and active experiences within a headset. Selection of the optimal control may be guided by considering the hypothesized target of engagement and the proposed mechanism of action.


Randomization should be described and ideally achieved using an appropriate computer program (eg, MS Excel Random Number Generator) [81] or random number tables without involvement of the investigators who enrolled the patients.

Blinding and Concealment of Allocation

The committee acknowledged that blinding and concealment can be challenging, but they identified techniques to incorporate these RCT principles within the constraints of VR research. For example, Spiegel and colleagues (2017) achieved concealment of allocation in an RCT comparing a library of VR content to a “health and wellness” television channel in hospitalized patients experiencing pain [83]. At the time of consent, the researchers explained to patients that the study compared “two different audiovisual experiences designed to reduce pain,” but did not describe the details of the competing interventions. Patients randomized to the television intervention did not know that VR was the other condition and vice versa. This approach may reduce the “novelty effect” of receiving VR rather than a familiar experience like television. Equipoise may also be achieved by exposing patients in both arms to headsets, but varying the content viewed within the headset (eg, immersive vs nonimmersive, active vs passive). At a minimum, study analysts should be blinded to patient group allocation, allowing for unbiased evaluation of the data without the knowledge of the study group. Patients should be asked not to reveal details of the program they experienced to decrease the chance of unblinding the study analysts. The measurement of perceived group assignment at the end of the study can help assess the success of blinding within the study. This should be done at the discretion of the research team.


Like the VR2 trial, VR3 trials must prespecify a clinically relevant and validated PRO as the primary endpoint. The study must be appropriately powered to demonstrate a minimally clinically important difference (MCID) [84] in that endpoint between the VR treatment and control arms. The psychometrics of PRO measurement are beyond the scope of this document, but existing references may assist investigators in protocol development [84,85]. Secondary endpoints may include a variety of clinical, imaging, biometric, and physiologic surrogate markers, as deemed appropriate by the study team. Like VR2 trials, potential adverse events must be prospectively measured and reported.

Study Duration

VR3 studies should monitor patients for a sufficient period to determine whether the VR treatment meaningfully impacts clinically important outcomes. One-time, short-term evaluations may be insufficient to evaluate the true clinical value of an intervention. Follow-up over several days may be appropriate if the study only focuses on hospital stay, but measurement over weeks, or even months, may be necessary to assess the impact on long-term clinical benefits.

Presentation and Analysis of Results

VR-CORE recommends that the primary outcome be reported as the before and after difference in difference between study arms, with accompanying 95% CIs. For example, the change in the mean PRO score before and after the VR intervention should be compared against the change in the mean PRO score before and after the control intervention. In addition, the panel recommends predefining a binary response criterion, guided by the MCID of the primary endpoint. The proportion achieving the MCID should be reported and compared between groups, and the resulting number needed to treat should be calculated.

see original article for Table "Summary of best practice recommendations for VR3 Trials"

The primary analyses should use the intention-to-treat population, including all patients randomized regardless of follow-up or receipt of study interventions. However, per-protocol analysis may be appropriate in certain situation, such as if patients refuse the VR treatment after randomization; in this instance, reporting the rate of refusal would be important, but investigators might also seek to compare therapeutic responses only among those receiving the intervention.

Multivariable analysis may be useful in adjusting for prespecified confounding factors (especially if not equally distributed in the study groups) and exploring independent predictors of outcomes. To perform a multivariable analysis, it is optimal to have at least 10 (preferably, 20) observations for each independent variable included in the multivariable model.

Trial Reporting

VR3 trials must be registered in a publicly accessible registry (eg, such as All completed trials should be published, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. The Consolidated Standards for Reporting Trials (CONSORT) guidelines provide the framework for reporting RCTs [86] and should be followed in VR3 trials. VR3 trials must include a CONSORT diagram to demonstrate the flow of patients through each stage of the trial, including the number screened to the number randomized into each study group and the number analyzed.


To improve methodological quality in the therapeutic VR literature, the VR-CORE international working group presents a three-part framework for best practices in developing and testing VR treatments. This framework may be used to facilitate development of high-quality, effective, and safe VR treatments that meaningfully improve patient outcomes. Patients, providers, payers, and regulators should consider this framework when assessing the validity of VR treatments.






The paper details some of the history of Clinical Virtual Reality (VR) as it has evolved over the last 25 years and provides a brief overview of the key scientific findings for making a judgment regarding its value in the areas of mental health and rehabilitation. This write-up is designed be a companion piece to my SPIE keynote on the topic of, “Is Clinical Virtual Reality Ready for Primetime?” As such, the paper is packed with citations to key scientific research in this area that should provide readers who are interested in this topic with a roadmap for further exploration of the literature. After presenting a brief history of the area, a discussion follows as to the theory, research, and pragmatic issues that support the view that this VR use case is theoretically informed, has a large and convincing scientific literature to support its clinical application, and that recent technology advances and concomitant cost reductions have made clinical implementation feasible and pragmatically supported. The paper concludes with the perspective that Clinical VR applications will soon become indispensable tools in the toolbox of psychological researchers and practitioners and will only grow in relevance and popularity in the future.


Virtual reality isn’t just for gamers anymore. As part of a groundbreaking initiative, CU Boulder’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) is piloting the use of VR to treat students working through mental health conditions.

The new program, available to students now, aims to integrate VR with traditional therapy techniques for students facing anxiety, depression and other common mental health issues. The technology can also be used to treat phobias such as the fear of heights (acrophobia), the fear of public speaking (glossophobia) and the fear of insects (entomophobia).

“VR allows us to fully immerse students in environments that would otherwise be difficult,” said CAPS Director Monica Ng.

Exposure therapy is an evidence-based treatment to address anxiety and phobias, but the integration of technology into the therapy setting has been very limited on college campuses due to lack of resources, Ng noted.

Ng, who is spearheading efforts to introduce a suite of nontraditional counseling options to students, is excited about VR’s potential to help students make meaningful progress toward their mental health goals. Recently, she introduced canine therapy for students who find interacting with a therapy dog relaxing during counseling sessions.

Virtual reality therapy (VRT) will be offered to students on a limited basis starting this semester, with a single headset available at the CAPS VR lab. Initial VRT programs will include guided meditations and simulation programs to address phobias.

Ng said additional programs will become available soon after the launch, and students who are interested in integrating VRT into their current treatment plans should talk with their CAPS counselor.

“VRT is not for everyone,” she said. “It’s important to have a conversation with your counselor to determine if this is the right treatment course for you.”

CU Boulder is partnering with the CU Anschutz Medical Campus to expand a VRT program on the medical campus, too, Ng said.

The Technology Innovation Network at Anschutz will use wireless headsets to enable practitioners to provide VRT within their own offices in addition to its existing VR lab.

CAPS is also working with the Community and Behavioral Health department in the Colorado School of Public Health at CU Denver to create customized therapy programs, including one designed to address test anxiety by featuring simulated versions of real-world CU Boulder classrooms. Program expansions are expected to roll out this spring.


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The World Health Organization has reported that one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Around 450 million people currently have such conditions.

Considering that mental disorders are among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide, VR is a welcome additional treatment. Studies have already shown that VR can ease certain phobias, treat PTSD, help people with psychotic disorders experience less paranoia and anxiety in public settings, and reduce social anxiety.

To date, due to cost and technology limitations, VR has not been widely available as a treatment. However, with the rise of affordable standalone and mobile VR headsets, there is increased opportunity to use VR and decentralize mental health treatment, allowing more people to benefit.

PTSD affects 7.7 million people in the U.S., and one in three people who experience a traumatic event will have PTSD. The symptoms range from insomnia to personality changes. Exposure therapy - repeatedly exposing patients to their traumatic event in a controlled environment until triggers of the event no longer lead to anxiety - has been found to be more effective than treatments like medication and psychotherapy. VR is believed to be a particularly successful method of exposure therapy.

Research clinics have been experimenting with VR as a method since 1997. It is believed that the sensory and immersive nature of VR helps PTSD patients get better, faster than simply describing the trauma, and relapses are less frequent. It also allows clinicians to measure, document and learn from the results in order to better understand the brain and biological factors that serve to inform the prevention, assessment, and treatment of PTSD. The virtual environment means people don’t need to imagine their traumatic experience - the work is done for them.

Dr. Albert Rizzo is a research professor at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technology (ICT). The research institute, in partnership with Virtually Better and in collaboration with the U.S Army, created Bravemind - a PTSD treatment system.

An early project undertaken by Bravemind researchers was intended to aid returning veterans process and deal with wartime trauma. Patients were outfitted with a head-mounted display and virtually sent back to Fallujah or other Middle Eastern areas of conflict. The soldiers physically held a rifle or other weapon, and were taken through a simulation that included booming explosions, rumbling engines, and even smoke and dust vented into the treatment room.

Bravemind is considered a success and has been helpful as part of psychotherapy plans to help veterans process their experiences, reduce panic attacks, and even be able to sleep without medication, sometimes for the first time in years.

Phobias & Anxiety Disorders

For years, VR therapy has been used in clinics for the treatment of phobias and other anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders affect at least 40 million people in the U.S (18.1% of the population) and cost the country $42 billion per year. Specific phobias affect about 19 million individuals in the U.S.

Despite the vast number of patients afflicted by some form of anxiety disorder, only 36.9% receive treatment. This is where companies like Mimerse could make a real difference. Since 2014, this ‘virtual pharmacy’ has been developing therapeutic VR apps. Mimerse has been working with clinicians, scientists, healthcare and platform providers to create a scalable future of mental healthcare. The company’s products include a relaxation and meditation experience for inducing calm and reducing stress, while apps to tackle phobias like the fear of public speaking and flying are coming soon. Mass-market apps like this could offer huge value for individuals globally.

Psious is a VR tool for mental health professionals. The platform is “democratizing virtual reality treatments for therapists and patients around the world” by providing mental health professionals with animated and live environments they can use in their clinical practice. The various scenarios provided within the platform comprise over 50 resources (virtual reality and augmented reality environments, 360º videos, etc.) employed for the treatment of anxiety disorders, fears and phobias, as well as for the practice of mindfulness and relaxation techniques.

Limbix helps practitioners to treat patients with anxiety or phobias, and helps those who need pain management techniques. Real-world footage is incorporated into 360° videos designed to help patients deal with the challenges they face. Patients can face their fears, practice conversations, visit remote locations, and relax in tranquil settings while in authentic, virtual environments.


Michelle Craske is a psychiatry researcher at The University of California, Los Angeles. Michelle and her colleagues are testing whether virtual reality can curb anhedonia: the inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities - a common symptom of depression and other serious mental health conditions. The researchers are putting patients into pleasant scenarios - like strolling through a sun-soaked forest while piano music plays - and coaching them to pay close attention to the positive parts by talking through it in immense detail. The idea is to help patients learn to plan positive activities, take part in them, and reap the benefits of the good feelings they bring.

“Most treatments, up until now, have done an OK job at reducing negative [symptoms of depression], but a very poor job at helping patients become more positive,” said Craske.

In a paper accepted earlier this year by the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Craske’s team found that the treatment was more effective than cognitive behavioural therapy at boosting positive feelings. Participants who went through the treatment also reported lower levels of depression, anxiety, and other negative symptoms than their peers in the standard treatment group.


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An initiative which uses augmented reality (AR) to help support men at risk of suicide has been launched in Liverpool.

Started by James’ Place, a charity supporting men at risk of suicide, those considered at risk are given a “crisis card” to provide immediate support.

Simply using a smartphone or tablet to download the Zappar app, a patient can scan a card which brings to life an augmented reality human who can offer support and advice.

The video also shows what it’s like to visit the James’ Place centre.

Using the crisis card promotes engagement with the James’ Place service, which can help them feel less alone, reducing the likeliness of suicide.

The technology can be customised to suit specific needs, like a voice with a familiar accent.

It was developed by AR and digital design experts Media and Digital (MAD), who also worked with Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust.

Steve Bradbury, deputy director of improvement and innovation at the Centre for Perfect Care at the trust, said: “The therapeutic services offered by James’ Place give much needed care and support to vulnerable individuals in a safe and familiar environment.

“Our goal is to see suicide rates drop dramatically following the introduction of the crisis cards.”

The cards are being distributed widely, including at university campuses, sports stadiums and A&E departments as a new way to target men at risk of suicide.

Posters also featuring the AR code – which can be scanned and captured to watch later – are on display to promote the initiative.

Inderjit Singh, of The Innovation Agency, added: “Part of our remit is to seek out innovative technology to support ongoing improvement for the Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust’s service.

“The crisis cards offer a new way to really engage with this demographic and will help get the trust’s important message out to a far wider audience than we’ve traditionally been able to reach.”

In a separate story, a recent report, published by the Mental Health Network (MHN), said NHS England (NHSE) should develop a national vision for digital mental health.


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Digital technologies should have much to contribute to tackling mental health conditions. Treatment can take place remotely and some patients may prefer to discuss problems through a screen rather than face-to-face. Plus, in the UK, and globally, there is a big gap between demand and capacity for treatment, something that technology could help fill.

The greatest potential is in “blended treatments”, where self-service and automated technology supports healthcare professionals, says Dr Jen Martin, senior programme manager at the mental health MindTech MedTech Co-operative – a national centre focusing on the development, adoption and evaluation of new technologies for mental healthcare and dementia. “Where digital has a real role to play is in that additional help, while someone is having traditional face-to-face therapy,” she says. Much research and funding has gone into digital mental health therapies. “The big blocker is NHS adoption. It needs to be embedded into systems.”

Embedding is already happening, however – Greater Manchester mental health foundation trust uses ClinTouch, for example: a mobile app for people recovering from psychosis, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Although patients will typically see a care co-ordinator monthly, symptoms of a relapse can appear within days; with the app, users are asked how they feel a few times a day, and an alert is generated if a relapse looks likely. Shôn Lewis, University of Manchester professor of adult psychiatry, says about half of patients find it useful and most stick with it; some even suggest new functions, such as a diary facility and medication reminders.

But it has taken time to convince healthcare professionals. “They thought it was science fiction, it would never work, patients would never use it,” says Lewis who started working on ClinTouch a decade ago. But other trusts are piloting the app, which is also set to be made publicly available later this year.

Affigo, the not-for-profit organisation that manages the app, is also looking at how wearable devices and social media usage could contribute useful data. And University of Manchester clinical psychologist Dr Sandra Bucci is adapting the app to provide a cognitive behavioural therapy service for psychosis patients, with plans to test it in a clinical trial.

Some NHS organisations have adopted telepsychiatry – videoconferencing therapy sessions. Healthcare technology company Healios provides nearly 30 clinical commissioning groups and mental health trusts with such services, including the option of involving several members of a family in a single session. Founder and chief executive Rich Andrews sees potential for much greater use of data analysis, comparing this to how physical conditions are diagnosed through biomarkers such as high levels of cholesterol in blood: “One area I think is incredibly exciting is how we develop the digital equivalent of cholesterol for psychiatry,” he says. Mental health often relies on paper questionnaires and people’s memories, but digital technology could instead analyse people’s voices, monitor how fast they swipe mobile devices, and analyse the contents of social media images and the language of written messages, says Andrews.

Virtual reality (VR) is another technology that can be used for mental health. Daniel Freeman, University of Oxford professor of clinical psychology, has led the treatment of fear of heights by placing people in a virtual atrium through the use of headsets. A scientific trial found that the results exceeded those of face-to-face therapy, and it is now available on the NHS in some places in England.

Freeman and colleagues are now working on gameChange, a six-session programme that tackles psychosis by placing people in virtual equivalents of a bus or a cafe. Users work through levels of difficulty, such as the bus getting more crowded or needing to ring the bell and becoming the centre of attention. “We find people overestimate what bad things will happen,” says Freeman. “They find in VR that they can look at people, they can order a coffee in a cafe and everything is fine.”

Freeman thinks VR will help people with a wide range of mental health conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. “There’s no shortage of ideas. It’s just we have to commit the resources, disorder by disorder. We have years of work for our programming team,” he says. “There are no technical barriers here.”

‘The children and introducing older people to tech and older people are sharing their life experience – it’s mutually beneficial’

A care home in Wales is introducing its residents to tech – and helping them connect with younger people

Tom Jones is better than medicine for residents of Woffington House, a dementia care home in Gwent, Wales. “When someone is becoming upset or anxious, we go on to YouTube and show them Tom Jones, particularly his 1966 hit The Green, Green Grass of Home,” says registered home manager Adam Hesselden.

Since the home introduced residents to Apple iPads, Amazon Echo Dots and virtual reality headsets two years ago, it has found that the need for anti-psychotic drugs has all but disappeared, and emergency ambulance calls have fallen by 29%.

The technology has enabled residents to undertake virtual travel through the headset or projectors. This can be down the road, to judge the Easter bonnet parade at Georgetown primary school in Tredegar, but also to other places the residents know.

The home is now considering offering virtual cruises and train journeys as well.

For Hesselden, the initiative is a way to connect Woffington House’s residents to the world outside: “These people need meaningful occupation, a purpose and something to do, as opposed to being sat inappropriately sedated in a care home.”

The home’s original reason for investing in the technology, though, was to help regularly-visiting schoolchildren to bond with residents as part on an inter-generational project, which has gone from strength to strength.

“The children are introducing the older people to technology, and older people are sharing their life experiences. They are mutually benefiting from the experience,” says Hesselden.

Children have also been able to learn from residents’ histories through emailed questions, on topics including the second world war and what it is like to be a steam train engineer.

“We’ve got a whole bank of experience cooped up in a care home that maybe isn’t being utilised enough, and it’s free,” says Hesselden.

Technology – and, perhaps more importantly, enthusiastic schoolchildren – are providing an outlet for just that.

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