- The ‘Phobys’ app is now available for free for iPhone and Android smartphones
- App lets users get up close and interact with AR Spider to cure their fears
- Clinical trials in Switzerland showed that it reduced the severity of arachnophobia
If the thought of being near a spider scares you, there’s good news—scientists have created an augmented reality app that overlays a virtual 3D spider on your arm as a treatment for arachnophobia.
The free app, called Phobi, created at the University of Basel in Switzerland, is available in both Apple’s App Store and Google Play for Android.
It guides the user through a series of 10 levels that gradually increase in intensity, culminating in seeing a virtual spider on their hand.
According to the researchers report, the Phobis app has already proven itself to be effective in clinical trials in reducing the severity of arachnophobia.
Researchers found that volunteers with arachnophobia experienced less fear when presented with real spiders after using the app at home.
Augmented Reality, or AR, layers computer-generated images on top of real-life surroundings, and is used in apps like Pokémon Go to bring digital components into the real world.
With the AR app Phobis, people with arachnophobia can rehearse a virtual spider encounter. The fear of spiders is one of the most common phobias and leads to a variety of limitations in everyday life.
How does the PHOBYS app work?
Phobis consists of 10 levels with different functions of exposure and interaction with a real 3D AR Spider model. Task instructions are given via small text pop-up windows within the levels.
You can test your fear with the free version and then continue your training and face your fear with the full version by unlocking all 10 levels.
Training begins with simply observing a spider from a distance, but it gradually increases in difficulty and intensity of exposure.
After each level, users could indicate whether they were able to complete the tasks, while rating levels were of fear and disgust.
Users are asked to repeat the level if the fear and disgust ratings are high or they were not able to complete the tasks. When fear and disgust ratings are low, and users feel comfortable, they can move to the next level.
Users can stop training at any time by closing the app. Users can resume at any level of their choice.
According to its description on the App Store, Phoebes is suitable for people who ‘suffer from a mild, clinically insignificant fear of spiders and who are at least 16 years of age’.
People suffering from mild forms of arachnophobia can use the app on their own, but in the case of those who suffer from a severe fear of spiders, the researchers recommend that the app be used only under the supervision of a professional.
Arachnophobia is one of the most common phobias.
Victims have been known to excessively check rooms for spiders or avoid certain rooms, such as basements or lofts, and in extreme cases avoid social situations or have panic attacks.
An effective treatment for a fear of spiders is ‘exposure therapy’, in which patients are guided through therapeutic exposure to the situations they fear in order to gradually reduce their fear.
But one problem with exposure therapy for arachnophobia is that affected people are reluctant to expose themselves to real spiders.
Phobis is based on exposure therapy and uses a realistic 3D spider model that is projected into the real world.
Study author Anja Zimmer at the University of Basel said: “It is easier for people who are afraid of spiders to encounter a virtual spider than a real spider.
‘Repeated use of the AR app reduces subjective fear in real-life spider situations, providing a low threshold and low-cost treatment for fear of spiders.’
With each level, the tasks on the app become more intense and more difficult for people with a fear of spiders.
It guides the user through a series of 10 levels that gradually increase in difficulty, culminating in seeing a virtual spider on his hand.
Each level ends with its own fear and disgust assessment, and the app decides whether the level should be repeated or the user can move on to the next level.
Phobis also uses game elements such as rewarding feedback, animation and sound effects to ‘maintain a high level of motivation’ to reach the next level.
Although it allows users to test whether they are afraid of a virtual spider for free, training to reduce the fear of spiders must be purchased for a fee.
For the clinical trial, Zimmer and colleagues analyzed the effectiveness of phobias in a clinical trial involving 66 subjects.
Over the course of two weeks, the participants—all of whom suffered from a fear of spiders—completed six half-hour training units with either phobias or, in the case of the control group, no intervention.
In extreme cases, arachnophobia sufferers may experience panic attacks as a result of their fear. It is one of the most common phobias affecting people in the UK and around the world
Before and after the treatment, subjects approached a real spider in a transparent box as much as their fear of spiders allowed.
The group that trained using phobias showed significantly less fear and disgust in the spider situation in real life and was able to move closer to the spider than the control group, which showed no positive changes.
According to the research team, these effects were statistically significant and in size comparable to those of conventional medicine.
The beneficial effects of AR apps are ‘likely to encourage people to face their fears in subtle and fun, yet effective ways’, they conclude.
The successful clinical trial is further detailed in a paper published in Journal of Anxiety Disorders.
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