Sometimes the only way to beat your demons is to face them, even if it’s in a simulated reality.
To help people overcome drug addiction, researchers at the University of Houston’s Graduate School of Social Work are building hyper-realistic virtual worlds to recreate situations that trigger cravings for nicotine, alcohol, weed, and now, hard drugs like heroin.
Traditional relapse therapy usually involves roleplaying: Therapists often pretend to be a friend or some other familiar person and offer the patient their drug of choice in order to teach them avoidance strategies.
By strapping patients into a virtual reality headset and running them through a familiar scenario where they commonly use the drug, like a party, the treatment can be much more realistic and effective.
The trick is to make addicts crave virtual drugs. And then choose not to use.
“Video games create fantasy, but in my lab, it’s reality,” Patrick Bordnick, the lab’s director and founder, told me. “We have to make it real. The drink can’t look like some drink that you’d see in World of Warcraft, or something like that. An alcohol dependent person knows their drink and what it looks like. If it’s not the right colour, if it doesn’t look like a real whisky, that’s not gonna make that situation applicable to them.”
Bordnick’s lab has constructed a myriad of tempting scenarios for different drugs, including a pizza party (for pot, natch), an office courtyard, and a gas station. By making these environments as realistic as possible, right down to the smells, Bordnick hopes to bring the visceral feelings of addiction to the surface in his patients, so they can be addressed by a professional therapist.
As I mentioned, smell is an important part of the treatment. A pizza party without the aroma of a large hawaiian pie, beer, and pot wafting through the room wouldn’t be convincing enough to work. While the virtual reality headset and treadmill that Bordnick’s team uses to immerse patients in virtual environments work decently well on their own, a scent machine completes the illusion.
We have raw marijuana smell, marijuana smoke, incense, anything that’s associated with the drug.
“If there’s people eating pizza in the restaurant, you smell pizza. And marijuana, obviously,” Bordnick said. “We have raw marijuana smell, marijuana smoke, incense, anything that’s associated with the drug. If you go outdoors, we have sort of a pine, or outdoorsy, scent.”
Virtual reality has recently become a powerful tool in the treatment of various mental illnesses, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in veterans returning from overseas. Bordnick previously worked with the Navy to build a virtual Iraq simulator to do just this, and Motherboard visited the facility in California earlier in the year. But war isn’t his forte; Bordnick has been studying cravings for nearly two decades.
The lab’s initial trials treated cigarette smokers with a great deal of success, he said. Now, they’re ready to tackle harder drugs like heroin. Creating virtual heroin use environments that are convincing enough to work in therapy presents a wide set of challenges, including mimicking how people actually shoot up.
“People say, you know, I’ve seen a movie where people shoot up drugs, I know what it looks like. All you have to do is watch Sid & Nancy, right? Well, we can’t create a movie. We have to create a virtual world,” Bordnick explained. “We did extensive work from research in our centre with people who are heroin dependent, and our field workers have been out into the places where people use in order to recreate the exact situation.”
Aside from sending research assistants out into drug dens, Bordnick’s team also asked heroin users to act out their injection rituals, which were digitized with motion capture suits and imported into a virtual world.
“You can buy off the shelf joggers, or people playing football or basketball or whatever, but there’s no site online that has an avatar injecting drugs,” Bordnick said. “A lot of it we have to build up from scratch, and we have to get it right.”
Bordnick’s goal for the future of virtual reality addiction therapy is to make it as readily available to the masses as possible. To do this, he plans on porting the lab’s virtual environments on to smartphones so people can practice their avoidance strategies on their own time. It makes sense, since affordable virtual reality headsets for smartphones are set to hit the market soon.
Virtual reality could indeed be a widespread tool for fighting addiction one day. That is, if the technology doesn’t become addicting on its own.