Researchers at the University of Basel have developed an augmented reality app for smartphones to help people reduce fear of spiders. The app has already been shown to be effective in a clinical trial, with subjects experiencing less fear of actual spiders after completing just a few training units with the home app.
Fear of spiders is one of the most common phobias and has several limitations in daily life, as those affected seek to avoid situations involving spiders. For example, patients are known to avoid outdoor social occasions, visits to the zoo, or certain travel destinations, or to over-check spider rooms or avoid certain rooms, such as basements or lofts. An effective treatment for fear of spiders is “exposure therapy,” in which patients are guided through therapeutic exposure to the situations they fear in order to gradually break their phobia. This treatment is rarely used, because those affected are reluctant to expose themselves to real spiders.
To address this situation, the interdisciplinary research team led by Professor Dominique de Quervain has developed an augmented reality application based on smartphones called Phobys. Write to Journal of Anxiety Disorders, researchers have reported promising results with this app designed to combat fear of spiders.
Phobys is based on exposure therapy and uses a realistic 3D spider model that is projected into the real world. “It’s easier for people who are afraid of spiders to face a virtual spider than a real one,” explains Anja Zimmer, lead author of the study.
Verified efficacy in one study
Zimmer and colleagues analyzed the efficacy of Phobys in a 66-subject clinical trial. Over the course of two weeks, participants, who were all afraid of spiders, completed six half-hour training units with Phobys or, in the case of the control group, were not offered any intervention. Before and after treatment, subjects approached a real spider in a transparent box as close as the fear of the spiders allowed. The group that had trained with Phobys showed significantly less fear and disgust at the real-life spider situation and was able to approach the spider than the control group.
The Phobys app offers nine different levels for subjects to get closer to and even interact with the virtual spider. With each level, the tasks become more intensive and therefore more difficult. Each level ends with an assessment of one’s own fear and disgust, and the app decides whether the level should be repeated or whether the user can move on to the next. The app also makes use of game elements, such as rewarding feedback, animation and sound effects, to maintain a high level of motivation.
Phobys is available in app stores
Following refinement with the help of GeneGuide AG (specifically, the MindGuide division), a derivation of the University of Basel, the app is now available in iPhone and Android smartphone app stores. People who suffer from mild forms of fear of spiders can use the app on their own. In the case of people who suffer from severe fear of spiders, researchers recommend that the application be used only under the supervision of a professional. The app allows users to test if they are afraid of a virtual spider for free, while training to reduce fear of spiders can be purchased in the app.
The current study is one of several ongoing projects of the Transfaculty Research Platform for Molecular and Cognitive Neurosciences, led by Professor Andreas Papassotiropoulos and Professor Dominique de Quervain, with the aim of improving the treatment of disorders mental through the use of new technologies and These treatments are widely available.
Zimmer A, Wang N, Ibach MK, et al. Effectiveness of an augmented reality exposure app based on smartphones to reduce fear of spiders in real life: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. 2021; 82: 102442. doi: 10.1016 / j.janxdis.2021.102442
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