Psychology's New Phobia-Fighting Tool: An Augmented Reality Cockroach

By Joseph Calamia | July 6, 2010 12:59 pm

roachLooking for a midnight snack, you open a Tupperware container. Inside you find not your dinner leftovers, but a nasty cockroach. You stick your hand in.

Welcome to augmented reality psychology. The cockroach in the Tupperware is only in your mind–or your virtual reality goggles–and is part of an exposure therapy technique meant to treat those with extreme phobias.

Though traditional exposure therapy might require a person afraid of elevators to ride one repeatedly, or demand that a person afraid of cockroaches meet one face to bug-eyed face, the mere prospect of such experiences is enough to drive some patients out of therapy.

But perhaps, as described in a small study in Behavior Therapy, an augmented reality cockroach can provide all of the benefits without the ick.

Technology Review blogger Christopher Mims describes the setup, in which virtual cockroaches are inserted into video images of the real world.

“Combined with a camera on the front of the headset, the system allows researchers to show wearers both the real world and realistic cockroaches. The paper reports that the roaches could skitter, wave their antenna, and even change size from small and medium to hideously large.”

In the study, six women underwent a three-hour exposure session with the faux roaches. The hand in the Tupperware scene was a final test, which the study participants passed. Follow up tests over the next year showed that they continued to stay strong against virtual creepy crawlers.

Commenters on the Tech Review blog are already calling for non therapeutic uses, i.e. video-gaming: Duck Hunt meet bug squash.

Related content:
Discoblog: Let Them Eat Dirt! It Contains Essential Worms
Discoblog: Small Comfort: Cockroaches, Too, Get Fat on an Unbalanced Diet
Discoblog: Your Augmented Reality Life: Coming Soon in 2020
Discoblog: Augmented Reality Tattoos Are Visible Only to a Special Camera

Image: flickr / Steve Snodgrass

  • Deiloh

    I don’t have access to virtual therapy. I caught a black roach, nearly fainted, stuck it in a jar, and put it on my desk (I have a very understanding boss). Can’t say that I can stick my hand in with it but my response to seeing roaches is much more tame then it used to be. Desk “pets” to date: wolf spider, large house spider, corpse fly, and black roach. Hope the six women stay strong.

  • Joseph Calamia

    You are a brave one, Deiloh. That’s quite some desk pet menagerie you have there!

  • Rachel Taylor

    Does anyone know how I can have this treatment at all? I cant seem to be able to contact any of the authors of the researchers.
    Is it being offered by any psychologists?
    Many thanks

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