If the thought of being near a spider terrifies you, here's the good news. Scientists have created an Augmented Reality app that puts a virtual 3D spider on your hand as a treatment for arachnophobia. The free app is called Phobys and was created at the University of Basel in Switzerland, and is available on both the Apple App Store and Google Play for Android.
The app guides the user through a series of 10 levels that gradually increase in difficulty, culminating in seeing a virtual spider on your hand. The Phobys app has already shown its effectiveness in a clinical trial to reduce the severity of arachnophobia, according to the researchers. The researchers found that volunteers with arachnophobia experienced less fear when presented with real spiders after they used the app at home.
Augmented reality, or AR, technology involves computer-generated images over a real-life ocean and is used in apps like Pokémon Go to bring digital components into the real world. According to its description on app stores, Phobys is suitable for those with a mild, clinically insignificant fear of spiders who are at least 16 years old.
People with mild forms of arachnophobia can use the app on their own, but in the case of people with a serious fear of spiders, researchers recommend using the app only with professional supervision. Arachnophobia is one of the most common types of phobias.
People with phobias typically check rooms excessively for spiders or avoid certain rooms, such as basements or attics, and in extreme cases avoid social situations or have panic attacks. One 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 down their phobia. The problem with arachnophobia exposure therapy, however, is that those affected are reluctant to expose themselves to real spiders.
Phobys is based on exposure therapy and uses a realistic 3D spider model that is viewed in the real world.
Study author Anya Zimmer from the University of Basel said, it is easier for people with a fear of spiders to encounter a virtual spider than it is for a real spider. Repeated use of an AR app reduces subjective fear in a realistic spider setting, providing a low-cost treatment for arachnophobia.
With each level of task on the app, things become more intense and more difficult for people with a fear of spiders. Each level ends with an assessment of fear and disgust, and the app decides whether the level should be repeated or the user can move to the next level. Phobys also uses game elements, such as rewarding reactions, animations, and sound effects, to "keep a high level of motivation to get to the next level.
Although it allows users to test whether they are afraid of a virtual spider for free, training to reduce the fear of spiders must be purchased for a fee. For the clinical trial, Zimmer and colleagues analyzed the effectiveness of Phobys in a 66-person clinical trial.
Over the course of two weeks, the participants, who all experienced a fear of spiders, completed six half-hour training units with the Phobys or, in the case of the control group, offered no intervention. Before and after the treatment, subjects approached a real spider in a transparent box as far as their fear of spiders allowed.
The group trained with Phobys showed significantly less fear and disgust in the realistic spider setting and were able to get closer to the spider than the control group, which showed no positive changes. These effects were statistically significant and of a similar magnitude to conventional treatment, according to the research team.
The researchers conclude that the beneficial effects of AR are likely to encourage people to confront their fears in a subtle, fun, and effective way.