Virtual spider technology developed by researchers helps arachinophobes (fear of spiders and other arachnids such as scorpions) overcome their phobia.
Researchers at Canterbury University's human interface technology laboratory (Hit Lab) are developing an "augmented reality" application that projects virtual spiders on to real-world environments, such as an office desk.
People can interact with the spiders to help overcome their phobia, including "nudging" them with their hands, and letting them, virtually, crawl up their arms and over and around real objects such as books or coffee cups.
Hit Lab researcher Andreas Duenser said the application used Microsoft Kinect camera technology, used with motion-sensing XBox 360 games, and software that simulates spider movements to create interaction between humans and the virtual arachnids.
That interaction was displayed on a computer screen, but in future could be shown through special glasses worn by users for a more realistic effect, Duenser said.
"Other researchers have overlaid virtual spiders on to a real-world environment but there was no interaction. We can make it a lot more realistic and interactive and potentially more effective for treating purposes," Stuff.co.nz quoted Duenser as saying.
The application was still in the prototype stage and needed funding - a funding proposal to the Health Research Council had been rejected - so he and fellow researchers Sam Corbett-Davies and Adrian Clark could bring in clinical psychologists to help test and develop it.
Phobic Trust chief executive Marcia Read said "exposure" therapies, where people were gradually exposed to fear stimulus, were commonly used to treat single or simple phobias, along with other methods.
"Anything that can help alleviate the terror of a spider phobia is good - as long as it's not too full-on. It has to be a very slow [process]." Phobias could be very disabling for those affected, she said.
Duenser said virtual reality applications - which created fully immersive virtual environments - had been successful in treating conditions such as shellshock in war veterans and the Hit Lab planned to develop a virtual reality-based earthquake simulator to help treat post-traumatic stress disorders from quakes.
But he believed augmented reality applications - where virtual and real objects are combined - could prove more effective in treating phobias and conditions because they were more realistic.