weather is lovely outside the rooms large picture
windowblue skies, birds singing, a calm, sunny day.
Soon, however, the wind picks up, rain begins to splatter
the panes, and low booming thunder can be heard in the
distance. At the storms peak, lightning flashes,
the wind howls, and the power fails.
anyone with a phobia of storms, these are the stimuli
that set their heart racing and stomach churning. But
this virtual environment, a novel treatment for anxiety
disorders, is controlled by a therapists computer
keyboard and experienced through headsets and a video.
Reality Therapyexposing clients to a computer-generated
model of the fear-provoking situation until they become
more comfortable with itis becoming increasingly
popular to treat anxieties about flying, heights, public
speaking, and other common phobias.
Professor of Psychiatry Barbara Rothbaum, who directs
the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at Emorys
School of Medicine, was one of the pioneers of VRT in
the early 1990s. Rothbaum, a clinical psychologist, and
Larry Hodges, a computer scientist then at Georgia Tech,
were principal investigators in the first published journal
study on using virtual reality exposure for treating a
phobiain this case, the fear of heights.
had been taking patients up tall buildings and to the
top of the parking garage for years, but we discovered
that the virtual reality exposure translated into real
life, Rothbaum says. Seven out of ten people
at the end of treatment were able to go into a real-life
that they had a marketable product but no way to produce
it, they formed the Atlanta-based company Virtually Better
(www.virtuallybetter.com) in 1996 to develop, test, and
market computer software systems of virtual reality exposure
therapy. Rothbaum and Hodges, who is now at the University
of North Carolina at Charlotte, each own 47.5 percent
of the business. Emory and Georgia Tech each own 2.5 percent.
government agencies like the National Institutes of Health
(NIH) or the Department of Defense fund a study, they
dont want it to be just ivory tower research that
ends up in journals they want it to get out to the
public and have an impact on peoples lives,
says Rothbaum, from her Emory Clinic office. On her wall
is a patent for VRT, and a New York Times article about
involved in the business side is a double-edged sword,
says Rothbaum, who admits to preferring the academic and
research side, while leaving the marketing and commercialization
to Virtually Betters CEO, Ken Graap.
best part of a start-up is that youre eligible for
small business grants from the NIH, Rothbaum says.
The worst is that it can be problematic professionally,
by limiting the research you can do.
was on the Conflict of Interest committee at the School
of Medicine for six years, helping to determine what the
boundaries are for faculty researchers who take their
innovations through to application. The intent is to protect
both their academic integrity and their right to profit
from their inventions.
researchers are honest people in search of truth with
a capital T, says Rothbaum. I dont think
[tech transfer] taints them. If academic researchers couldnt
benefit, wed lose them to private industry. But
once the product gets to a certain level, there is a conflict
of commitment, and you have to make a decisionto
be a faculty member, or an entrepreneur. There must be
clear walls and limits between the lab and the business.—M.J.L.