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Virtual Reality Therapy for Combat Stress

A new, high-tech system designed to treat military veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder -- or PTSD -- may be familiar to fans of a squad-based combat video game.

Using components from the popular game Full Spectrum Warrior, psychologist Skip Rizzo and his colleagues have fashioned a "virtual" world that simulates the sources of combat stress.

The project is a joint venture between the Institute for Creative Technologies -- a cutting-edge research lab at the University of Southern California -- and the Office of Naval Research. The object is to help veterans come to terms with what they've experienced in places like Iraq and Afghanistan by immersing vets in the sights and sounds of those theaters of battle.

The soldier being treated wears VR goggles and headphones. Using a tablet-based interface, a therapist can activate or remove the sounds of gunshots or the sight of smoke, depending on a patient's reaction. The idea is to re-introduce the patients to the experiences that triggered the trauma, gradually, until the memory no longer incapacitates them.

Eventually, Rizzo believes the therapy will include other stimuli, such as vibrations to simulate the impact of bombs or rumbling of tanks, and even the smells of war -- the body odor, garbage and spices of urban combat, for example.

Early results from trials suggest virtual reality therapy is uniquely suited to a generation raised on video games. The gaming aspect of the treatment also helps to lessen the stigma associated with getting therapy.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Xeni Jardin
Xeni Jardin can be heard on NPR’s Day to Day, offering technology insights for listeners nationwide. Jardin is also a contributing writer for Wired Magazine, as well as a tech culture journalist and co-editor of the collaborative weblog BoingBoing.net, the award-winning "Directory of Wonderful Things."