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How Virtual Reality Can Help Us Deal with Reality

For the addiction program, the virtual environments include a sports bar, a liquor store, a convenience store, a coffee shop, and a nightclub, and in each setting, there are virtual actors to engage with — a bartender who offers a drink, a friend who goes out for a smoke break, a person injecting heroin.

“We’re leveraging video game technology to go for the ultimate realism,” Bordnick says.

There is currently a waiting list for the Limbix VR Kit, which includes a VR headset, tablet, charging cables and a docking station. Lewis says Limbix hopes to release the kits sometime in 2019.

AUGMENTING TRADITIONAL ROLE-PLAYING

Once the Limbix VR Kit is available, Bordnick hopes clinicians use the VR kit as a tool to augment traditional evidence-based interventions and enhance therapeutic gains. “It’s not a cure for addiction,” he says, “but I believe it’s going to be an effective tool to help us design therapies that are more effective for long-term change.”

For example, instead of a therapist asking a client to pretend they’re at a bar when they’re actually in sitting on a couch in an office building, the therapist would hand their client a portable VR headset. The therapist would press a button on a tablet, which is connected to the VR headset via Bluetooth, and suddenly, the client would be at a virtual bar. If the clinician knows their patient is really into red wine, they can press a button on the tablet, and the bartender might pressure them to order a glass.

“The therapist can not only assess the impact of the situation on their patient but can also teach them skills so when they’re out in the real world they’re more empowered to not relapse when they encounter the same situation,” Bordnick says.

In Bordnick’s lab, study participants report that the virtual experience is in line with what they experience in the real world. “They’re reaching out for virtual cigarettes. They’re experiencing the cognitive as well as the biological sensations of craving,” he says. “Overwhelmingly, we’ve demonstrated these environments evoke real-world cravings and can serve as foundational building blocks to teach coping skills and relapse prevention skills.”

Bordnick and Limbix are also looking at ways to use VR for psychosocial education for patients and family members as well as future generations of clinicians.

One of the first clinics that will deploy the technology is Imagine Recovery in New Orleans. “As an addict and a person who works in the field, I wasn’t too sure how [VR] would actually work,” admits Christopher O’Shea, chief operating officer of Imagine Recovery. “To be able to put [our clients] in a safe environment and let them stretch a little bit in the virtual world I think is a significant safety net that we can use here at Imagine.”

Imagine CEO Felicia Kleinpeter agrees: “It is like doing experiential work that can’t be done in the therapy office. The value of it is tremendous.”

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