The startup sees significant scope for growth in VR-supported therapy on the NHS
University of Oxford spinoff Oxford VR has completed a £3.2 million funding round, with backing from Oxford Sciences Innovation, Force Over Mass, RT Capital, and GT Healthcare, among others.
The investment will enable the startup, which supplies “clinically validated” virtual reality (VR) tech as treatment for patients, to push development in immersive technologies for a range of psychological problems.
Oxford VR is also adding Digital Health’s Barnaby Perks as its new CEO, as well as former staff from games company NaturalMotion, PlayStationVR, and the University of Oxford’s VR department.
It’s additionally set up its Oxford headquarters and London-based development hub.
Height phobia VR experience
The company’s first product, an automated treatment for height phobia, is now being used in select NHS clinics. It followed a double-blind trial of the treatment, the results of which were published in Lancet Psychiatry.
According to the university, for the height phobia study, people with a fear of heights were randomly allocated to the VR therapy or to no treatment.
For the VR group, the company used a software application called Now I Can Do Heights, developed using Unity3D and delivered using a gaming PC, for the treatment, administered in roughly six 30-minute VR sessions over a period of two weeks. In the VR scenario, particpants were taken into an atrium of a large ten-storey office complex to conduct various tasks.
All participants in the VR group showed a reduction in fear of heights, at an average rate of 68 percent. As many as half the participants in the VR group showed a reduction in a fear of heights by over three quarters, it said.
“Instead of a real-life therapist, we used a computer-generated avatar to guide users through a cognitive treatment program for fear of heights,” said professor Daniel Freeman, Chief Clinical Officer of Oxford VR, who led the Fear of Heights study
‘Clinically validated’ VR treatment with a virtual coach
Oxford VR was founded in late 2016 and seed-funded in January last year. It is part of the consortium awarded £4 million by the UK National Institute of Health (NIHR) back in February — for VR coaching.
In the NHS’s VR experience, a coach guides the patient through simulations of situations they find troubling, as practise techniques to overcome their difficulties.
“Patients often find it easier to do this work in the virtual world – and they enjoy using our VR applications – but the beauty is that the benefits transfer to the real world,’ said Freeman, who is also professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford.
“Our new treatment is automated – the virtual coach leads the therapy – and it uses inexpensive VR kit, so it has the potential for widespread use in the NHS. We’re inspired by the opportunity VR provides to increase dramatically the number of people who can access the most effective psychological therapies.”
VR is increasingly being picked up in healthcare for its cost and accessibility benefits. In the UK, London startup Virtue is using VR headsets for dementia care. Its “Look Back” app provides reminiscent experiences as “time travel” therapy — an effective form of treatment for the psychological effects of dementia.
In the US, VR has been used as a way for patients to preview their own surgery.