The thought of talking in front of a large crowd
can cause even business professionals to tremble. The stares of
a waiting audience can evoke sweaty hands, shortness of breath and
memory loss for people who suffer from this most common social anxiety;
fear of public speaking is common in up to 88 percent of individuals
with social phobia and 34 percent of people overall.
A new pilot study is exploring the first attempt at virtual reality
therapy (VRT) for people with a fear of public speaking. The computer-based
self-help program is based on the research of Barbara Rothbaum,
associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the
School of Medicine and director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery
Program; and Larry Hodges, former associate director of the Graphics,
Visualization and Usability Center at Georgia Tech and now professor
and chair of computer science at the University of North Carolina
Rothbaum’s and Hodges’ work involves using virtual reality
as a medium for exposure therapy for people with anxiety disorders.
They first used VRT in 1995 to treat patients with a fear of heights.
Since then, they also have conducted studies for persons with fears
of flying, thunderstorms and post-traumatic stress disorder for
Vietnam veterans. In 1996, the pair formed the startup company Virtually
Better Inc. to market their virtual reality systems.
“Using [VRT] is an easier way to treat the fear of public
speaking for logistical reasons,” Rothbaum said. “It’s
difficult for most therapists to assemble enough people on a regular
basis, and at a specific time, to use a real audience for someone
with fear of public speaking. But with VRT, participants give a
speech to their virtual audience and tape themselves to use it for
Therapists at Virtually Better are looking to enroll participants
in the first phase of the pilot study. To be considered, participants
must be between the ages of 18–65, read and speak English,
and public speaking must be their primary fear.
If accepted into the study, participants will complete eight sessions.
The first four, facilitated by a therapist, will introduce anxiety-management
techniques, such as breathing relaxation, speaking tips, cognitive
therapy (ability to identify and analyze anxious thoughts) and a
videotaped speech performed by the participant in front of the center’s
During the following four sessions, called exposure therapy, the
participants will use the self-help module that features different
computer-generated environments which appear on a computer monitor.
The programs are designed to allow participants to slowly get used
to public speaking. Depending on their levels of anxiety, participants
can choose different situations, such as speaking to different audience
sizes, using different delivery styles for their speech and responding
to different audience reactions.
Elana Zimand, director of clinical services at Virtually Better,
will work with Libby Tannenbaum, an Emory postdoctoral fellow, to
conduct the pilot study.
“We advise the participants to first choose the situations
that produce the least anxiety, and then gradually build up to more
anxiety-producing situations,” Zimand said. “This approach
allows for a more therapeutic exposure to the environment.”
Currently the therapy is conducted by viewing a computer screen,
but in the near future, Zimand said, a three-dimensional component
will be introduced. With the use of a head-mounted display that
covers the eyes and ears, the therapy will create a sense of immersion
into the environment. Virtual reality integrates real-time computer
graphics, body-tracking devices, visual displays and other sensory
input technology to assist the patient in making the experience
as close to real life as possible.
People interested in the study may call at 404-634-3400 for more
information. Under an agreement between Virtually Better and the
University, Rothbaum is entitled to a share of sales royalty received
by the University from the company. Under that agreement, Emory
and Rothbaum have received Virtually Better equity interests. The
terms of this arrangement have been approved by the University in
accordance with its conflict of interest policies.