NEW ORLEANS (AP) — You're in a bar, bottles of liquor in front of you on a lighted shelf. The bartender asks if you'd like a drink.
For someone struggling with alcohol addiction, that's a hazardous situation. But in this case, the world is virtual -- and the person struggling with addiction can work with a cognitive behavioral therapist on how to handle those potential triggers.
For more than a decade Patrick Bordnick, the dean of Tulane University's School of Social Work, has investigated the possibility that the world of virtual reality could be used in addiction treatment.
He started exploring virtual reality when the technology was still in its early stages 12 years ago as a potential tool that cognitive behavioral therapists could use to help addicts cope with triggers that cause them to relapse. He is also researching how the technology could be used to help patients with autism better manage social situations mirrored in the virtual realm.
"We look at how cravings are triggered by certain cues in the environment," he explained. A cue, or a trigger, can be anything from a place the addict associates to using the drug, a person, or even a time of day.
Bordnick saw the potential of recreating different environments in the virtual reality world to study how a recovering addict responds to different triggers and to help them develop coping tools when they encounter those triggers in the virtual world, which can then be applied to real life.
The technology is being developed by a start-up company called Limbix that helps researchers create virtual reality applications for the treatment of mental health problems. The company specializes in the creation of immersive environments where patients can help cope with a variety of situations that help them confront their fears. The tools are created for mobile devices, making them portable as well as more cost effective.
Patients would be able to access the tools on their mobile devices which then attach to a VR headset such as the Google Daydream or Samsung Gear.
Bordnick said that Project Delta, the name of the VR tool being designed to understand and build coping tools for recovering addicts is set to launch within the next six to 12 months.
The potential benefit of virtual reality as a tool for people with anxiety, addiction patterns, and other mental health issues has been increasingly studied over the past decade.
Researchers with the Department of Psychiatry and the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford assessed 285 studies conducted on virtual reality and its use in treating mental health conditions and concluded in a report published in October 2017 that "mental health problems are inseparable from the environment. With virtual reality, computer-generated interactive environments, individuals can repeatedly experience their problematic situations and be taught, via evidence-based psychological treatments, how to overcome difficulties."
Project Delta explores different settings that could trigger a relapse. For example, in one setting, designers recreated a virtual bar where the patient can engage with other patrons and order a drink from a virtual bartender. The exposure to this setting would be overseen with a trained therapist who would guide the patient as they experience the different triggers, help them identify those triggers and help them develop coping mechanisms to avoid relapse in the real world. Another setting shows the exterior of shooting gallery where heroin users might typically go to use.
The technology has advanced substantially from its origins and each situation uses real actors in place of avatars.
"Fifteen years ago, the avatars were not realistic. Everything has been motion captured using real actors so that the patient and therapist can work together in a realistic environment that mirrors real life outside of the clinical setting," he said.
Tangentially to Project Delta, Bordnick is also exploring how a similar concept of exposure therapy could be used to help people with autism explore social settings in the virtual reality world called the Quality of Life Project.
"Picture being able to practice what it's like to venture into a party where you can walk into the crowd and interact. Or if you have a fear of public speaking, being able to stand in front of a virtual audience and practice your speech," he said.
His team is also developing a tool using geo-mapping where a recovering addict can drop a pin at a location they typically associate with drug or alcohol use. When they get within a certain distance from that location their phone would alert them offering coping tools for stress relief or the option to call a sponsor or family member to help them manage the trigger.
Bordnick was recently recognized for his work in the field of virtual reality receiving a Not Impossible Award at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 11. The awards recognize people, companies and inventions that are helping bring about positive chance to the global community.