The New Yorker has an article, “Virtual Iraq,” exploring how immersive virtual-reality simulations are being used to help Iraq war veterans recover from post-traumatic stress disorder. By enabling the soldiers to realistically re-live the events that trigger their trauma—all the way down to sights, sounds and even smells—the technology can dissociate the trauma from the triggers. (At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Anecdotal evidence in the article supports the practice, but it doesn’t sound like any wide-ranging studies have been conducted.)
To make Virtual Iraq, Rizzo started with two basic scenarios: the market-town street scene and a Humvee moving along an Iraqi highway, where all the exit signs are in Arabic and the road cuts through sand dunes. Then he gave therapists a menu of ways—visual, aural, tactile, even olfactory—to customize them. At the click of a mouse, the therapist can put the patient in the driver’s seat of the Humvee, in the passenger’s seat, or in the turret behind a machine gun, and the vehicle moves at a speed determined by the patient. Maybe the gunner in the turret is wearing night-vision goggles—the landscape goes grainy and green. A sandstorm could be raging (the driver can turn on the windshield wipers and beat it back); a dog could be barking; the inside of the vehicle could be rank. Rizzo’s idea is that giving the therapist so many options—dusk, midday; with snipers, without snipers; driving fast, creeping along; the sound of a single mortar, the sound of multiple mortars; the sound of people yelling in English or in Arabic—increases the likelihood of evoking the patient’s actual experience, while engaging the patient on so many sensory levels that the immersion in the environment is nearly absolute.
As technology develops, it will be interesting to see the expansion of video games as educational or therapeutic tools. Already, people with physical and behavioral disabilities have embraced the virtual freedom provided by virtual environments such as Second Life. Realistic, but controllable, virtual environments will play an increasing role in enabling people to learn real-world tasks or become adept at coping with real-world fears.