• Virtual reality therapy is a new form of therapeutic treatment that involves the use of avatars—realistic, computer-generated images of a virtual mental health professional that clients can talk to.
  • A 2022 study noted that when discussing difficult, painful subjects in a therapy session, 30% of test subjects actually preferred talking to an avatar instead of another human. 
  • Avatars seem to show promise as an emerging telehealth tool, as long as they don’t appear too realistic
  • When we see ultra-human features on something we know isn’t human, this commonly triggers fear, disgust, and confusion, a phenomenon known as the Uncanny Valley.
  • Virtual reality has also been proven to help with situational anxiety and specific phobias via virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET).

Virtual reality has been the brainchild of science fiction for decades, and it seems as though it’s finally arrived. Projects such as the metaverse have stoked excitement, confusion, and even fear. We’ve never lived in a virtual world before, but the technology to make it happen is already in the works. One of the most thrilling aspects of virtual reality is the possibility of controlling an avatar, a holographic or projected image of ourselves. We’d even be able to interact with other people’s avatars, too. 

But would you ever consider talking to a therapist’s or counselor’s avatar, instead of face-to-face? Telehealth, which uses webcams to connect clients and their providers, has been an effective way for people to receive discrete and convenient treatment. And for some, it may offer an easier, more relaxed way to talk through difficult subjects in therapy. Promisingly enough, recent findings suggest that virtual reality therapy could be the future of telehealth services. 

Why Do Some People Prefer Talking with an Avatar? 

In a study published in January of 2022, researchers used virtual reality technology to motion-capture the movements and expressions of real people and then create somewhat realistic human avatars using those images. These avatars were used in virtual reality therapy sessions, and the results were surprising. When it came to talking through tough subjects in a session, 30% of test subjects actually preferred talking with an avatar, as opposed to seeing a real therapist’s face. 

The researchers theorized that virtual reality therapy might be a more appealing option to those who are new to mental health services and could be anxious about sharing their personal experiences. Virtual reality therapy may also quickly change the nature of telehealth services. The report theorized that one day soon, clients may be able to project their therapist or psychiatrist in their own living space—or have their own avatar be present in their provider’s room. It’s an intriguing possibility, considering that telehealth services are already preferred by 45% of clients between the ages of 18 and 44. 

Do Avatars Have Their Limitations In Virtual Reality Therapy?

Avatars seem to be a great option—just as long as they don’t look too human. In fact, we’re likely to experience fear, disgust, and confusion when we interact with avatars or animated caricatures that are extremely realistic. This is a psychological phenomenon known as the Uncanny Valley. When we see ultra-human facial characteristics on something that we know is not human (let’s say on a robot or the characters in CGI-animated film “Cats”), it can be disturbing. Instinctually, our brain is constantly trying to identify human faces—even in the landscape and inanimate objects around us. This is known as anthropomorphization. 

As social creatures with complex emotions, we communicate primarily through eye contact and by analyzing facial movements. So it’s possible that an avatar in virtual reality therapy might be preferred by some because it removes some of the emotional intensity of interacting with another person. Talking through painful subjects with an avatar may feel less invasive and more private. 

What Lies Ahead for the Future of Virtual Reality Therapy? 

For the time being, telehealth services won’t involve avatars. Some tech experts predict that by 2030, the public will be able to engage in virtual or augmented (partially virtual) environments that engage all five of our senses. Whether or not virtual reality therapy becomes mainstream has yet to be seen, but it’s currently being used to create relaxing environments for clients to enjoy. And even more intriguing, virtual reality therapy is being used to pioneer a new form of treatment—virtual reality exposure therapy, or VRET

For clients with specific phobias or situational anxiety, VRET has been clinically proven to help decrease situational anxiety, phobia-related fear, and even phantom limb pain. Imagine conquering your fear of public speaking by having the opportunity to practice in a room full of avatars while standing at a virtual podium. 

So, while virtual reality therapy uses cutting-edge technology that might take us outside of our comfort zones, perhaps we should embrace the oncoming augmented age—as it seems that it’s already arrived.