A group of Swedish researchers is testing a new health app that aims to treat phobias using smartphone-based virtual reality games, starting with arachnophobia.

Virtual reality in healthcare has been explored for a lot of different health applications. In particular, we’ve seen a number of pilot studies in mental health, like using virtual reality for depression and schizophrenia.

Mimerse’s app, cutely named Itsy, is already available. It basically works to slowly expose users to an array of spiders in different, life-like environments. Initially, the spiders start out pretty tame, almost cartoon-like in appearance. However, they gradually become more realistic, increasing in stimulus intensity. Users stay seated during the experience – the mobile virtual reality app tracks head movement, but not walking movement, unlike more expensive Vive or Oculus Rift devices.

The study featuring Itsy is currently ongoing and is comparing the use of the app to traditional therapy for arachnophobia. The details of the study, including recruitment and study protocol, are available online through BioMedCentral. It will be very interesting to see the final results of the Itsy study, as the VR therapy may be considerably more affordable than traditional therapy sessions and potentially more immersive.

Gamified exposure therapy is another avenue of virtual reality and one that is readily adaptable to the smartphone market. A myriad of devices exist for turning your smartphone into a virtual reality headset, including the popular Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR. While medical applications of VR have been available for many years, the last 2-3 years has seen an explosion in consumer-level VR hardware. With this increasing affordability and availability, you can bet that apps like Itsy are just the beginning.