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Fighting Fear of Spiders with Augmented Reality

An augmented reality app for smartphones has been developed by scientists from the University of Basel to help people decrease their fear of spiders. The app has been a success in a clinical trial, with subjects fearing real spiders less after finishing just a few training segments with the app at home.

Fighting Fear of Spiders with Augmented Reality.
With the app Phobys, people with arachnophobia can practice encountering a virtual spider. Image Credit: University of Basel, MCN.

Fear of spiders is one of the most typical phobias and leads to a range of limitations in daily life, as those affected look for ways to avoid situations that may involve spiders. For example, sufferers are known to shun visits to the zoo, social occasions outdoors or some travel destinations — or perform extreme checks of rooms for spiders or avoid certain rooms, such as lofts or basements, altogether.

One successful treatment for fear of spiders is “exposure therapy,” wherein patients are directed through therapeutic exposure to the situations they fear to progressively break down their phobia. This treatment is seldom used, however, because those with the phobia are averse to exposing themselves to real spiders.

To resolve this situation, the interdisciplinary study team headed by Professor Dominique de Quervain has built a smartphone-based augmented reality app called Phobys. The scientists have reported encouraging results with this app engineered to handle the fear of spiders, details of which have been published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders.

Exposure therapy is the basis of Phobys, and it uses a lifelike 3D spider model that is projected into the real world.

It’s easier for people with a fear of spiders to face a virtual spider than a real one.

Anja Zimmer, Study Lead Author, University of Basel

Effectiveness Verified in a Study

Zimmer and her team examined the effectiveness of Phobys in a clinical trial with 66 subjects. During the course of two weeks, the subjects — who all had a fear of spiders — either finished six half-hour training units with Phobys or, with respect to the control group, were not offered intervention.

Before and after treatment, the subjects were asked to go close to a real spider placed in a transparent box as much as their fear would allow. The group that had trained using Phobys app displayed considerably less fear and revulsion to the real-life spider situation and was able to get closer to the spider than the control group.

There are nine different levels in the Phobys app so that subjects can get closer to — and even interact with — the virtual spider. With each level, the tasks become more demanding and, therefore, tougher. Each level ends with an evaluation of one’s own fear and revulsion, and the app chooses whether the level should be taken up again or the user can progress to the next one.

The app also utilizes game elements, such as animation, rewarding feedback and sound effects, to sustain a high level of motivation.

Phobys is Available in App Stores

After enhancement with the help of GeneGuide AG (specifically, the MindGuide Division), a spin-off from the University of Basel, the app is currently available in the app stores for Android smartphones and iPhones.

People having mild forms of spider phobia can use the app on their own. However, for those who suffer from a serious spider phobia, the researchers suggest that the app only be used with professional supervision.

The app enables users to test whether they are frightened of a virtual spider for free, while the training to lower their fear of spiders can be paid for in the app.

The present study is one of many projects underway at the Transfaculty Research Platform for Molecular and Cognitive Neurosciences, headed by Professor Andreas Papassotiropoulos and Professor Dominique de Quervain, with the aim of refining the treatment of mental disorders via the use of new technologies and making these treatments commonly available.

Journal Reference:

Zimmer, A., et al. (2021) Effectiveness of a smartphone-based, augmented reality exposure app to reduce fear of spiders in real-life: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Anxiety Disorders.


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