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Much of the buzz and press surrounding virtual reality’s rapid ascension in the tech world as “the next big thing” is centered on its entertainment applications. But as it turns out, VR technology can accomplish so much more than that, so don’t go putting VR in a corner. Take, for example, a program launched at the University of Southern California that is utilizing virtual reality as a recovery tool to help relieve the trauma and PTSD that afflicts many veterans.

This unprecedented VR experience places veterans into a virtual environment that recreates conditions that many soldiers at war find themselves in. Utilizing VR glasses and a vibrating chair, the experience goes so far as to incorporate smells like burning rubber and diesel in order to create the realistic illusion that they are actually in war-like conditions. The goal is to make them relive the trauma of war, but in a completely safe, secure environment and guided by a trained counselor who can help talk them through the experience. Dubbed Bravemind, the idea is to tackle the trauma head-on and face a lifelike recreation of what they went through without the ever-present danger that accompanies war.

“Essentially, my goal is to drag psychology kicking and screaming into the 21st Century,” Dr. Skip Rizzo, developer of the Bravemind VR experience, said. The program has already seen a number of success stories and has helped veterans like Christopher Merkle combat and overcome their PTSD. Merkle, who served as a Marine for 10 years, found it difficult to re-acclimate to everyday life and was crippled by PTSD. He turned to Bravemind as a way to confront and deal with these issues. “It’s a form of treatment I thought would be more effective,” he said. “It would get right to the problem. I knew this would force me to bring out these issues.”

Over 10 virtual reality therapy sessions, Merkle was finally able to talk about a lot of the trauma he kept pent up inside. By re-immersing himself in those all too familiar environments and having someone there to guide him through his feelings and trauma, Merkle was able to confront and overcome his trauma in ways he previously couldn’t. Success stories like Merkle’s are allowing researchers, including Rizzo, to fine-tune this virtual reality therapy to help more veterans. As of now, this type of VR therapy is currently being offered at 60 different locations, including VA hospitals. Rizzo’s next step is creating new realistic situations to provide healing to as many patients as possible.

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