Internet-enabled virtual environments may rid patient from disorders and phobia

Verbania 28 March 2001A consortium of 8 Italian, 1 French, and 3 Spanish partners has received funding from the European Commission to perform research on the technical and clinical viability of combining portable Virtual Reality systems with telemedicine tools in order to cure patients suffering from psychological disorders. The Vepsy-Updated project was launched at the start of 2001 and will involve the building of four Virtual Reality modular systems (VRMS) and validation of their clinical use in treating disturbances like panic disorder; agoraphobia and social phobia; obesity, bulimia and binge-eating disorders; premature ejaculation and male impotence. The project team will also define new protocols for VR-based therapy of psychological illnesses and will rely on the feedback of 240 patients who will test the equipment during a 15-month period.

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The Vepsy-Updated modules will be made available to the user as shared telemedicine tools over the Internet, and as portable systems running on Speed-Step notebook PCs. Through a Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML) plug-in, compatible with commonly used browsers, such as Explorer and Navigator, the team will adapt VR therapy models for networked delivery to patients at remote locations. In this telemedical VR setting, the clinician who conducts the therapy session is not present physically but monitors the patient's behaviour within the virtual environment from a distant site. VRML allows to introduce interaction and animation elements, as well as interfaces to scripting languages thus providing the patient with a variety of simulation scenarios and access to network services at a relatively low cost.

Extensive scientific research has proven that patients tend to accept the use of virtual environments for treating mental disorders rather easily. Moreover, they show an equal level of satisfaction between the attention provided at a distance by the clinician while they are being exposed to VR stimuli, and a conventional session in the therapist's surgery. Whether VR tele-treatment over the Web by bringing distributed VR environments directly to the homes of sufferers from psychological disorders will be as much rewarding for both patient and physician, still has to be investigated. Some experts believe that the treatment of irrational fears requires the physical presence of a therapist with whom the patient can establish a relationship based on mutual trust.

The Vepsi-Updated consortium precisely aims to demonstrate that the use of VR technologies can be extended from single locations, such as hospital and rehabilitation facilities to the shared environment of the Internet. As such, it is possible to reach patients who for several reasons might have difficulty to gain access to current VR therapy services delivered in medical centres or in private practices. The project partners expect to develop 4 VRMS prototypes in nine months time and test their efficacy in small-scale clinical trials which first will involve some 30 patients. Based on this initial feedback, the design will be refined after which the viability of the VR modules will be assessed by the team in various sessions organised with 240 patients during a 15-month validation period.

Targeted user groups for portable and shared VR systems are patients with access to a low-cost PC and the Internet, home care providers, hospital staff, private therapist offices, public institutions, schools for prevention activities, health care associations, and rehabilitation facilities. The Vepsy consortium includes two spin-off companies, associated with the research institutions active in the project, and two expert companies with a long expertise in the medical IT industry that will support commercial exploitation of the results, as well as generate a sufficient critical mass to make the European Union-based research on the efficiency of Web-based VR therapy more competitive. You can find more background information on VR at the Web site of the Vepsy-Updated project.


Leslie Versweyveld

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