Afraid to fly?  Spiders?  There's a helmet for that
Virtual Reality Headsets

Afraid to fly? Spiders? There’s a helmet for that

A Christchurch entrepreneur who developed virtual reality software to help people with real-world phobias pitches his product to (potentially creepy and frightened) investors on the other side of the divide

A 10cm tarantula stands a few feet away on a sandy outcrop and doesn’t do much. She wiggles her legs a little, briefly shifts to the side, then stands there gazing at her world. For about two minutes.

And then today’s spider phobia exposure therapy session is over, they take off their VR headset, rate their anxiety levels on a scale, and have a (hopefully) spider-free day.

Depending on their reaction to the tarantula exposure, the next session might see the spider closer or farther away. As the treatment progresses, there may be another type of spider, it may scuttle or jump; you may need to touch it or even hold it. Virtually.

To get a feel for VR therapy in action, watch the video below. You can move around the video using your mouse or your finger.

Startup oVRcome is the brainchild of Christchurch-based entrepreneur Adam Hutchinson. He started working on virtual reality to help people with phobias and anxiety in 2020, and launched his first product in February 2021 and his first clinical trial (fear of needles, flying, spiders, heights and dogs) in June of the same year.

The results were released in July 2022, and earlier this month the company won the startup pitch at the Australian National Telehealth Conference in Sydney.

The second clinical trial (concerning social anxiety) is ongoing and two more are planned for this year. Meanwhile, Hutchinson will be back on stage to showcase its technology to more investors at the Digital Health Festival in Melbourne in June. For someone who has struggled with social anxiety for years, this is a double triumph.

The company has raised about $1 million in previous rounds of angel investors, Hutchinson says, and he’s looking for an additional $500,000 to get him through the next 12 months of marketing and new product development.

Adam Hutchinson and Dr. Cameron Lacey, who led the clinical trials. Photo: Supplied

But it’s not just a question of money. Hutchinson is the kind of guy who sees a problem and wonders if there’s a clever technical solution. This is not his first start-up.

An avid rod and spearfisherman, he saw in 2010 how difficult it was to get information on how many species you could catch in a given area, the allowed size of fish, and the methods you you could use.

He created the NZ Fishing Rules app, which was launched in 2011 and more than a decade later is still the go-to product on the Department of Primary Industry’s website. It has been downloaded over 300,000 times.

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Around the same time, Hutchinson developed CamperMate, an online information center for motorhome travelers and backpackers in New Zealand and, later, Australia.

CamperMate was purchased by the world’s largest motorhome rental company, NZX-listed Tourism Holdings, in 2015; Hutchinson left the company in early 2020 and, as he says, began looking for the next problem to tackle.

It was then that I learned about the mental health statistics of people with anxiety disorders and the fact that only 80% of them were receiving treatment.

Phobias 101

A phobia is defined as a persistent, excessive, and unrealistic fear of an object, person, animal, activity, or situation, especially when that thing poses little or no danger real. It can be dogs or confined spaces, clowns or thefts, blood or social situations.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that nearly 20% of the adult population in the United States is affected by some kind of anxiety disorder, including more than 9% of those with a specific phobia and nearly 10% with panic disorder or social anxiety.

Phobias are treatable, with the most common forms known as systematic desensitization or exposure therapy. Mainly practiced by psychologists, these techniques combine relaxation strategies with a gradual exposure to what is so scary.

You can start with pictures of dogs, then real dogs from a distance, dogs up close, touch a dog, encounter a barking dog on a leash, then off a leash.

With oVRcome, people are faced with 40 to 60 different environments involving, for example, dogs, and they move through each environment from less severe to more severe,” says Hutchinson. ” Every time [they complete a level] they rate their anxiety using the subjective units of distress scale.

Research suggests that less than a third of people with phobias get help.
Adam Hutchinson, oVRcome

We can start to personalize this treatment for them – look for signals that this person has a reaction to moving dogs, or a certain color of dog, or a dog doing a particular action. Then we can start using artificial intelligence to make decisions about the treatment of that person.

Research suggests that less than a third of people with phobias get help, Hutchinson says.

I started researching the reasons and the two main ones are that it is very expensive to go to see a psychologist, and very often someone can live in a place where psychologists are hard to get to. Add to that that there is a big shortage at the moment. So we wanted to see how we could offer this treatment and not force people to go see a psychologist.

The solution was to provide virtual reality exposure therapy through people’s smartphones.

If you’ve never strapped on a headset and entered a fully immersive virtual reality world, it’s hard to imagine how eerily real it feels. Real but not real at the same time.

That’s part of the benefits of exposure therapy using virtual reality, Hutchinson says. It’s scary, but not too scary.

You might be afraid to fly. Traditionally, you went to see a psychologist and your psychologist gradually exposed you to different things. What virtual reality does is allow you to experience this from home. So your brain thinks you’re actually doing this, and there’s some anxiety there, but that anxiety is in small doses.

I’d rather jump to certain death

For Dave Storey, the fact that it wasn’t quite real to do the phobia program on VR was part of what made it possible. Storey is managing director of Credit Solutions International, based in Christchurch. He also has an irresistible and irrational fear of flying. It had a serious impact on my life, my business and my marriage, he says. My wife wanted to travel and I couldn’t.

The phobia also prevented him from visiting his family, including his dying father. Other efforts to cure himself – including hypnosis and visits to Christchurch airport – had failed. He had not flown overseas since moving to New Zealand 37 years ago.

I had nightmares about a flight, I thought I was going to die on a plane. I felt I would rather jump to certain death than stay on a plane.

Turbulence footage from flying in a small plane was used extensively in the clinical trial

Storey was part of the University of Otago’s first oVRcome clinical trial. The first flight modules – going to the airport, walking around, checking in – weren’t so bad, he says, but it took him dozens of tries to pass the exercise where he had to walk the along the tunnel that leads to the plane. Sitting on the plane was also a nightmare. Like was on a flight when a thunderstorm hit.

You are told to look around and you see other nervous passengers. It was really weird, but you can opt out – you press the button and it takes you out of the survey. Sometimes I didn’t do it for three days, but you couldn’t jump [levels]. You do it over and over again until you succeed.

Storey flew to Brisbane earlier this year. There have been quite a few real-world preparatory trips to the airport, some involving Air NZ staff and quite a bit of diazepam. But being able to fly changed his life, he says.

Dave Storey celebrates his first boarding pass in 37 years. Photo: Supplied

The clinical trial Storey took part in was led by University of Otago Associate Professor Cameron Lacey of the Department of Psychological Medicine and was published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry in July 2022.

He looked at 126 people and found a 75% reduction in phobia symptoms after six weeks of the treatment program. The average length of time participants had suffered from their phobias was 26 years.

Hutchinson says clinical trial results are key when it comes to pitching to investors. But there is a conflict between the company’s goal of developing treatment that is accessible to as many people as possible and one that aims to generate maximum return for shareholders.

The monthly fee, US$29 ($47), isn’t really meant to charge people a lot of money, he says. That means we don’t focus on earnings, and unfortunately a lot of investors do.

But we have a really engaged and engaged group of angel investors primarily interested in improving the accessibility of mental health treatment. We need to find investors looking for real social results, not just a money-making machine.

At the same time, as start-ups, we create value around this intellectual property, not just revenue.

As Hutchinson heads to Melbourne for its next big launch next month, it’s not just as a start-up business owner – it’s as a former social anxiety sufferer, who has used exposure therapy to get it through.

I used to throw myself into social situations that my body was screaming at me not to get into. And yes, it helped me, but it was really difficult and it took a really long time.

I am now able to stand in front of an audience and present oVRcome something I never dreamed of when I was a teenager.

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