We’re only human, as they say. And, whether it’s that spider in the attic, a particularly gritty episode of Stranger Things or unexpected turbulence on an airplane, we humans are firmly hardwired to freak out in the face of anything that feels like danger.
While getting sweaty palms over a TV show or a house spider are essentially harmless remnants of an evolutionary instinct, deep phobias of things such as flying, heights, sharks, germs or crowds can have dramatic impacts on quality of life, particularly when it comes to traveling.
Indeed, phobias are much more common than many might realize: roughly one in 10 of us has a form of social anxiety, and one in five has a specific fear.
‘In the last decade, virtual reality (VR) has gone from being the stuff of sci-fi legend to an affordable, accessible experience’
The root causes of most phobias are attributable to a past experience leading to negative association (such as being trapped in a lift) or are linked to media exposure (reading stories about plane crashes)—although a significant proportion of phobias have no discernible cause.
Exposure therapy, which involves a patient being incrementally exposed to their fears in order to retrain the brain’s limbic system—the area responsible for processing emotion—is currently regarded as the most successful method for curing phobias.
But this technique remains impractical for many common travel-related fears, such as flying.
REAL FEARS, VIRTUAL CURE?
In the last decade, virtual reality (VR) has gone from being the stuff of sci-fi legend to an affordable, accessible experience.
Oculus Rift and the newly released Google Daydream View are just two products rapidly taking VR to the masses.
Equally, VR is now primed to transform the world of so-called confrontation therapy, helping people deal with everything from fear of flying to PTSD and even marital disputes.
‘In the short term, VR can be successful at reducing anxiety, relieving pain and overcoming a plenitude of phobias—including those that impact travel’
For example, Vividly, an app that utilizes VR to help people experience architecture and design, has created the Great Amber Concert Hall to help people with a fear of public speaking simulate the feeling of getting on stage.
There is also an early-access app for the Rift, Fearless, which was designed by developer Tim Suzman in response to his own arachnophobia. The app first places you in a room with a smiling cartoon spider, and levels up before eventually proffering a realistic spider that moves toward your face.
Once you’re used to that, the theory goes, you’ll be able to handle any eight-legged terror the real world can throw at you.
There are multiple teams around the world working on large-scale medical applications for VR in healthcare and therapy, including the California-based Virtual Reality Medical Center, yet there remains a lack of research into the long-term effects of VR on the makeup of the brain.
This begs discussion over how responsible it is to utilize such tools for treating patients.
Despite this, there’s lots of evidence that, in the short term, VR can be successful at reducing anxiety, relieving pain and overcoming a plenitude of phobias—including those that impact travel.
THE NEW NEW REALITY
Amy Peck is the founder of VR/AR consultancy Endeavor, which is based in San Francisco and works with virtual-reality startups around the world.
‘It seems the public perception of VR is that it is primarily for games and entertainment,’ she says.
‘While that is one application, I see VR along with augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality as the next computing platform. It will be as ubiquitous as our mobile devices.’
‘We can be with anyone, anywhere, at any time, experiencing almost anything. This will become the new normal’
Peck is positive about the impacts of a world in which the line between reality and augmentation becomes ever more blurred.
‘The way we interact with each other, with information, with the ‘real’ world and our virtual worlds, will become as fluid and natural as the way we connect today,’ she continues.
‘The difference is that there will be greater access to everything in our lives. We can be with anyone, anywhere, at any time, experiencing almost anything. This will become the new normal.’
And that is something that several travel companies are already seeking to capitalize on.
Smart2VR, Thomas Cook and Virgin are all already offering VR holiday experiences in order to boost sales by letting customers ‘try before they buy.’
There’s also the Google Earth VR program, which was released in November for HTC Vive. Google claims that the immersive, 360-degree experience lets you ‘fly over a city, stand at the edge of a mountain and even soar into space.’
But with this in mind, could VR hinder the global travel industry as much as it is set to help it?
Leonie Gaertner, a forensics expert for virtual worlds, is doubtful.
‘While it’s nice to see [exotic] places while staying at home, it is a completely different experience to actually get to new countries and meet new people,’ she says.
‘All that is not possible in VR yet, and in my opinion it will [just] make people travel [even more] around the globe.
‘What will happen less due to VR will be business travel—VR is the cost-effective alternative to traveling. A huge potential lies in the development of better puppeteering and spatial sound simulation.’
Strap yourself in—it won’t be long before we’re all forcing ourselves to see, and overcome, our greatest fears, without ever coming face-to-face with them at all.
Have you used VR to tackle a fear? Let us know with #momentum.travel.
Photo: Alamy – 1992 The Lawnmower Man