Can virtual reality give you backbone?

Facing your fears in VR simulations


The Interpersonal Behaviour Laboratory at the University of Lausanne use virtual reality to help people overcome the fear of public speaking. By terrifying them.

Tripping over words, trembling hands you can’t conceal, the glossy eyes of an audience that didn’t laugh at your only joke. Whether it’s giving a speech at your brother’s wedding or defending your PhD thesis, public speaking is one of the most common phobias. So should we ‘face our fears’ or imagine everyone in their underwear? 

The most common treatment for phobias is exposure therapy, during which people must face their fears at increasing intensities whilst being taught how to manage stress. Virtual reality exposure training (VRET) does the same in immersive, VR environments. “The therapeutic use of VRET is already established in many countries,” says Professor Marianne Schmid Mast, who heads the Interpersonal Behaviour Laboratory. “We use VRET for non-clinical populations – corporate training has not yet really discovered it.” 

VRET is convenient and in many cases more practical than traditional ET, but far more expensive to set up (a 6-figure number) and, actually, no more effective in overcoming phobias (1,2). “I don’t think we should replace the human trainer, but give them a powerful tool to incorporate into their training,” says Schmid Mast. Commercial availability of VR would expand the methods already used by media training services. “There’s very little risk to fail, you can immerse yourself in realistic scenarios, and maybe even improve your rankings like you would in a video game,” says Mikael Schutz, video director and media trainer at OpenClassrooms. “VR is a great way to enhance public speaking training.”



One of the VR simulations used by the Interpersonal Behaviour Laboratory to train corporate clients to overcome their fear of public speaking

I tried out one of Professor Schmid Mast’s VRET simulations. With the VR headset on and in a walkable immersive environment, I find myself in an industrial-like warehouse. I’m asked to make a speech to an avatar audience sitting in rows on my left – I can’t help but notice that the graphics aren’t very sophisticated. “With more realistic avatars, people look for the small mistakes and don’t become so immersed in the VR experience,” says doctoral student Tristan Palese.

Then, the platform I’m ‘standing’ on then elevates; I’m told to walk onto a narrow plank with a 5-metre drop below me before again addressing my public. “[We] add a fear of heights as an additional stressor. This is a trick to get everyone very stressed about public speaking and then to learn to overcome that stress,” says Schmid Mast. I wobble. I put my arms out to balance. And I know I look ridiculous because I’ve just seen another journalist do this. “For people with an extreme fear of heights, we don’t ask them to walk the plank,” says Schmid Mast after I’ve already walked the plank. 

Naturally, we’re all excited about the possibilities of VR and its therapeutic relevance. But its ability to evoke truly visceral reactions have some scary implications too. VR has obvious applications in torture, its main market is in porn, and has been reported to create false memories in young children. Until we know where those boundaries fall, it’s not clear how and whether VR technology should be moderated. 



The VR headset used by the Interpersonal Behaviour Laboratory