ProReal: a virtual reality tool to aid mental health

Corporation Pop consultancy has transformed 3D virtual reality software used in business coaching into mental health therapy for young people.

Early development work of the ProReal therapy prototype

ProReal depicts a fantasy, virtual environment whereby “players” create avatars that they can use to visualise their real-life relationships with other people.

In collaboration with a therapist, this can then be used to identify problems and ideas and consider options for change.

The consultancy first got involved in the project in 2012, after being contacted by a business coach who had seen its work on virtual reality game Second Life. “He wanted to take the coaching methodology into the virtual environment, so we built a prototype,” says Dom Raban, managing director at Corporation Pop.

The consultancy has created the avatars as genderless, featureless and naked, where users simply give them a colour, size and a gesture.

“We didn’t want to convey too many preconceptions with the avatar,” Raban says. “It’s quite an unrealistic avatar that is based on principles of how you feel about others.”

ProReal avatar
Current ProReal avatar model

The user modifies the colour and gesture of the icon, which both represent emotional state, and size, which represents the avatar’s power. It can also be given an “inner voice”, which is visually represented by a small head that appears behind the avatar’s head.

“A unique feature of the software is that you start building the scene from your own perspective, but can also inhabit any other avatar you create and see things from their perspective too,” Raban says.

The software uses a “prop box” of visual metaphors, including a ticking (time) bomb, a brick wall, a tombstone, a mine field and an elephant (in the room). Interactions between avatars take place at landscape features such as crossroads, and cliff edges. 

ProReal prop
Current ProReal prop model

“They’re based on individual interpretation, but are so obvious they’re almost clichéd,” Raban says. “But they need to be. The 3D landscape is based on fantasy because we didn’t want to create something that related too directly to someone’s real world experience.” 

The tool is currently being used in Europe as a business-coaching tool. The pilot therapy project has been awarded £970,000 by NHS England’s Small Business Research Initiative Healthcare that will go towards further development of the software.

Early development work of the ProReal therapy prototype
Early development work of the ProReal therapy prototype

Trials with young children and user experience research by the consultancy’s partner Sutherland Innovation Labs will be undertaken this year. Corporation Pop aims for the software to be fully commercially available in early 2016.

The consultancy will also develop a tablet version, as well as a guided self-help function for home-use by patients. The tool will be available for use by adults too, but young people will adapt to it more easily, Raban says. “The gaming and visual environment language is one that young people are very familiar with,” Raban says.

“Mental health is a massive problem in the UK and one that goes largely untreated,” he says. “There is no single silver bullet that helps people – there’s a range of therapies out there. ProReal has the potential to add to this set of therapies, and provide an easy-to-access and powerful tool for young people.”

Early development work of the ProReal therapy prototype
Early development work of the ProReal therapy prototype
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