The weather is lovely outside the room’s large picture window–blue 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 storm’s peak, lightning flashes, the wind howls, and the power fails.

For 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 therapist’s computer keyboard and experienced through headsets and a video.

Virtual Reality Therapy–exposing clients to a computer-generated model of the fear-provoking situation until they become more comfortable with it–is becoming increasingly popular to treat anxieties about flying, heights, public speaking, and other common phobias.

Associate Professor of Psychiatry Barbara Rothbaum, who directs the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at Emory’s 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 phobia–in this case, the fear of heights.

“We 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 height situation.”

Seeing that they had a marketable product but no way to produce it, they formed the Atlanta-based company Virtually Better ( 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.“

When government agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the Department of Defense fund a study, they don’t 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 people’s lives,” says Rothbaum, from her Emory Clinic office. On her wall is a patent for VRT, and a New York Times article about the therapy.

Becoming 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 Better’s CEO, Ken Graap.

“The best part of a start-up is that you’re 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.”

Rothbaum 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.

“Most researchers are honest people in search of truth with a capital T,” says Rothbaum. “I don’t think [tech transfer] taints them. If academic researchers couldn’t benefit, we’d 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 decision–to be a faculty member, or an entrepreneur. There must be clear walls and limits between the lab and the business.”—M.J.L.



© 2005 Emory University