This article comprises dialogue of sexual violence and assault.

Imagine your self in a bar, a watering gap of probably the most generic persuasion. There’s a pool desk and a cluster of screens broadcasting the sport, and whereas the music is lame and the lighting approach too vibrant, the environment doesn’t appear to be bothering anybody. On the dancefloor, a handful of individuals are swaying alongside to a monotonous beat.

At the bar, a tall blonde man is having a drink. He spots you, his gaze persistent, unwavering, and deeply unsettling. You would love nothing greater than for him to cease.

Then you take away your digital actuality headset and his picture fades away. He just isn’t actual.

This man—like each different patron on this fictional bar—is an avatar, a part of a digital setting created by researchers on the Université du Québec en Outaouais, close to Ottawa. His creepy vibe just isn’t my very own interpretation: This character is designed to make the person uncomfortable. Eventually, he’ll rape them.


At the Cyberpsychology Laboratory in Gatineau, Quebec, a small group of psychologists has created what they name the primary digital actuality setting designed solely to assist survivors of sexual assault.

“A girl who’s traumatized by a sexual assault will typically keep away from events or social occasions they affiliate with the assault,” defined psychologist Claudie Loranger, lead researcher behind this venture. “The first step in getting over that is exposing your self to the locations you’re avoiding.”

The creator with Claudie Loranger. Image: Matt Joycey

For many survivors, this could be a daunting process. As such, Loranger and her group have devised digital environments—a bar, which leads exterior to a bus cease—to assist ease sufferers into the method. Over the course of a number of classes, individuals are in a position to progress by the scenes, triggering recollections alongside the way in which. The last step is a VR model of a sexual assault.

The strategy is predicated on a century-old technique referred to as publicity remedy, whereby those that’ve skilled trauma or folks with phobias study to manage by reliving the scarring incident or exposing themselves to what they worry. Exposure remedy is a well-established therapy choice (with and with out digital actuality) for veterans of struggle and lots of research have proven the method can alleviate signs of post-traumatic stress dysfunction, like anger and despair.

Montreal-based psychologist Mireille Lévesque specializes within the therapy of hysteria issues. While she has by no means labored with digital actuality, she says publicity remedy is usually the best a part of a therapy program. With girls who’re survivors of sexual assault, nonetheless, Lévesque defined that the strategy have to be launched steadily and with utmost care.

“All trauma is tough, however instances of sexual abuse are much more difficult as a result of it’s the particular person’s intimacy that has been affected,” she stated in an interview. “So the publicity must be accomplished in a particularly respectful method.”

The VR bar setting. Image: Matt Joycey

Post-traumatic stress knowledgeable Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one in all publicity remedy’s most vocal detractors, would disagree. His take is that the strategy doesn’t heal the particular person however fairly dulls and desensitizes them from the expertise.

“The premise that the trauma must be relived again and again as a way to heal has questionable scientific benefit, as a result of the mind areas that go offline throughout a traumatic expertise and precipitate PTSD are as soon as once more deactivated when individuals are pressed to recreate the horrors of the previous,” van der Kolk wrote in 2015.

Iraq struggle vet David J. Morris has argued this therapy can really make issues worse for people, likening publicity remedy to one thing out of Clockwork Orange. “The drawback with extended publicity is that it additionally has made numerous veterans violent, suicidal, and depressed, and it has a dropout fee that some researchers put at greater than 50 p.c, the best dropout fee of any PTSD remedy that has been extensively studied to date,” Morris wrote.

Putting on the 3D goggles. Image: Matt Joycey

In our dialog, Loranger acknowledged the completely different colleges of thought in relation to publicity remedy, however stated the effectivity and security of this strategy has been well-documented. “There is a short lived discomfort nevertheless it’s actually therapeutic in the long term,” Loranger advised me. “That traumatic reminiscence is simply too huge for the mind to swallow in a single shot, there’s like a blockage.” By retelling the story or visiting the positioning of the incident, she added, an individual can progressively re-live the feelings it triggers, “which permits them to digest it in small bites.”

This brings us again to digital actuality, which is opening new doorways on this subject. The environments developed by the UQO group additionally function a spider or snake-filled home to deal with folks with arachnophobia or ophidiophobia, respectively, and a grocery retailer setting to assist folks with social anxiousness dysfunction, amongst others.

These VR environments are protected and managed by practitioners, “so we will do much more than we might be capable to in the true world,” Loranger stated. The lab’s creator, Stéphane Bouchard of UQO, added that the VR setting—on this case, a bar—doesn’t have to be the identical setting because the one wherein the survivor skilled their assault, so long as feelings are being activated and mentioned with the therapist.

The group’s research are performed in a darkish windowless room which spans three tales, to accommodate the big VR vault that sits in its centre. The $6 million dice boasts six video screens on which the digital worlds are projected, offering a very immersive expertise. No VR helmet is required, however customers should put on 3D goggles to make the photographs pop.

The aggressor within the simulation. Image: Matt Joycey

This setting is the place I first met my would-be avatar aggressor, the sleazy blonde man with options paying homage to a Sims character. Bouchard advised me it’s essential for the environments and their inhabitants to have a little bit of a cartoonish really feel. Roboticists name this phenomenon the “uncanny valley”: Humans sometimes mistrust robots that look practically human.

The idea additionally applies in VR, in accordance with Bouchard, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Clinical Cyberpsychology, a subject on the intersection of tech and psychology. “In digital actuality,” Bouchard advised me, “once you attain a sure degree of realism folks begin to give attention to particulars, they’ll say, ‘Oh, the hair isn’t transferring correctly,’ and it’ll kill the expertise.”


Over the course of my digital journey, the blonde man adopted me out of the bar, lurking, earlier than coming to take a seat beside me on a bus cease bench. This is the place the encounter is designed to grow to be a lot tougher to bear, first with verbal harassment, after which, the ultimate assault. This a part of the interplay is—fortunately—not seen. The projections pale to black, leaving me to course of the sounds of unzipping clothes and heavy respiration.

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“It’s such as you dissociate,” stated Bouchard, describing this a part of the video. “You can’t see something, voices are distant, you actually wish to depart it as much as folks’s imaginations.” This can also be largely to keep away from re-traumatizing or stunning the affected person.

Going by the entire ordeal—from the bar to the bus bench—took me about 10 minutes, however when built-in with a affected person’s remedy program, exploring the setting can take weeks and even months. “In a remedy session, some folks simply wish to keep within the bar,” Loranger stated. “If that’s already activating feelings, we will stick with doing solely that.”

The creator. Image: Matt Joycey

She stated the venture, which is definitely transferable to digital actuality headsets, has garnered worldwide curiosity. It’s being utilized by psychologists in Quebec and Ontario, in accordance with Bouchard, although he added that the sector has been sluggish to include this new know-how into therapy plans.

Lévesque, the Montreal psychologist who just isn’t concerned with the venture, stated that whereas VR-based remedy nonetheless hasn’t made its approach into her workplace, she’s maintaining a tally of any such utility and is hoping to see extra analysis. “I’m intrigued,” she advised me, “and if it’s accomplished nicely, it looks like a promising therapy choice. I simply need extra info first.”

Until then, Loranger burdened that this isn’t an expertise folks needs to be doing at dwelling, with out the supervision of an expert. “You actually need to be accompanied by a psychologist, who will be capable to gauge what you’re able to expertise.”

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