Virtual imaging technology helps people move “out of body” and get over social anxieties

Virtual system the creates over 100 social scenarios and puts the live person in the scene

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If you have ever visualized in your mind winning a race or overcoming a serious life hurdle then you understand at least some of the concept behind a new virtual video a technology that could help people with their social anxieties.

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Researchers say they have tested a system that lets people with all manner of social anxieties -- from using public transportation and buying a drink at a bar to socializing at a party, shopping, or talking to a stranger - see themselves interacting in those situations via video capture.

The system, developed by UK company Xenodu, uses a camera that watches the live person and software that creates an image of the person onscreen.  The system the creates over 100 social scenarios and puts the live person in the scene.  Unlike many virtual reality technologies the participant doesn't wear a helmet or mask to watch the virtual reality they have entered.  Basically the user observes their situation from an out-of-body perspective where they can then simultaneously view themselves and interact with the characters of the film.

Xenodu describes the system as 'virtual green screen technology' which replaces the user's background without the need of a green screen by using state-of-the-art computer vision techniques to extract the user from any background in real-time. The user's image is then overlaid on a background of their choice: desktop, video, web pages, a slideshow of images or a PowerPoint presentation. 

The customized system software as being  designed exclusively for use in the health care sector as a video capture and interaction tool for psychological therapies and in the education sector as an experiential learning tool, to support social, emotional and behavioral development through role-play, the company says.

According to the researchers at the University of East Anglia who helped develop the system,   the study  gave participants the chance to "experience social interaction in the safety of a virtual environment by seeing their own life-size image projected into specially scripted real-time video scenes."

The initial study of the system focused on six socially anxious young men recovering from psychosis who also have debilitating social anxiety.

From the University of East Anglia researchers: "The participants engaged with a range of scenarios, some of which were designed to feature rude and hostile people. The virtual environments encouraged participants to practice small-talk, maintain eye contact, test beliefs that they wouldn't know what to say, and resist safety behavior such as looking at the floor or being hyper-vigilant.

The main benefits of using these virtual environments in therapy was that it helped participants notice and change anxious behaviors in a safe, controlled environment which could be rehearsed over and over again. Participants were found to drop safety behaviors and take greater social risks. And while realistic to an extent, the 'fake' feeling of staged scenarios in itself proved to be a virtue.

Two of the patients said that the system felt 'weird and surreal,' so the element of having an out-of-body experience is something to study further in future - particularly because psychosis itself is defined by a distorted perception of reality."

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