Arachnophobia app: Augmented reality may help overcome fear of spiders

BASEL, Switzerland — Fear of spiders is incredibly common and it isn’t hard to figure out the cause. Despite our eight-legged friends actually doing a world of good for the ecosystem and doing away with other pesky bugs, a spider’s less-than-attractive appearance leaves many humans shrieking in terror. Now, however, researchers have developed an augmented reality app that may finally put those fears to rest.

A team from Basel University created the app with the intention of helping people get over their fear of spiders. It’s already showing promise in a clinical trial. Participants reported feeling less afraid of spiders after just a few at-home training rounds with the app.

Taking exposure therapy into the virtual world

Arachnophobia may not seem like all that big a deal to some, but it can seriously hamper life quality in extreme cases. For example, many who are afraid of spiders actively avoid outdoor events, basements, or anywhere else spiders typically live. Others can’t help but excessively check every corner of a room for spiders before becoming comfortable. One treatment method for arachnophobia, and any number of additional phobias for that matter, that have been effective in the past is exposure therapy. In a nutshell, exposure therapy consists of slowly exposing patients to the stimuli they fear within a controlled, safe environment.

When it comes to arachnophobia, though, many sufferers are very hesitant to try exposure therapy because it means being, well, exposed to spiders. The research team at Basel developed their app as a way to “expose” users to spiders without actually exposing them. The app called Phobys displays a realistic 3D spider model on users’ hands through the phone screen.

“It’s easier for people with a fear of spiders to face a virtual spider than a real one,” explains Anja Zimmer, lead author of the study, in a university release.

Phobys can increase our comfort levels

A total of 66 subjects diagnosed with arachnophobia tested the app out. Over the course of a two-week period, half of the participants completed six half-hour “training units” with the app, while the other participants did not use Phobys or any other intervention. Both before and after the two-week app trial period, researchers showed each participant a real spider in a transparent box. Participants had to get as close as possible to the spider without becoming overwhelmed by fear.

Sure enough, subjects who had used the app for two weeks showed far less disgust and fear after the intervention period than the control participants. They were also able to move closer to the real spider.

The Phobys app is no one-trick pony either. The app offers nine levels, allowing users to either approach or full-on physically interact with the digital spider depending on their comfortability. The end of each level also offers feedback on user progress, and a recommendation on whether or not it’s time to move on to a more scary level. Moreover, the app incorporates a number of “game elements” such as sound effects, rewards, and animation to help keep users engaged.

Phobys can be found on both the Apple and Android app stores. While people with mild arachnophobia are free to use the app all by themselves, study authors recommend that those with extreme arachnophobia only use Phobys under the supervision of a professional.

The study is published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders.

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