Point of View


Point of View

New Technologies for Today’s Practitioners: Using Virtual Reality to treat PTSD

By Ryan Howes

March/April 2016


For 100 years, our primary therapeutic tools have been words, buttressed by the other low-tech features of everyday human communication: facial expressions and body language. But then came the pesky tech revolution, replete with all those computers and apps that have come to supplant and enhance face-to-face connection. As a rule, however, therapists don’t like to change too quickly, and so far they’ve been slow to incorporate this new technology into their clinical work.

Enter Skip Rizzo, a brash, tech-savvy psychologist, who’s spent much of his career developing methods for helping clients overcome severe emotional difficulties by returning to the scene of their trauma via technology. As director of medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, a partner of the Department of Defense, Rizzo has taken standard exposure therapy in a new direction by helping veterans achieve emotional resolution by recreating the sights and sounds of their trauma. As he puts it, “We can now build digital Skinner boxes that immerse people in experiences that can help them heal.” In the conversation that follows, he explains how this therapeutic application of virtual reality (VR) works.

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RH: What drew you to applying VR in your work in the first place?

RIZZO: It started when I was working as a psychologist in traumatic brain injury (TBI) rehabilitation. One of the…

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