Tools like VR have the potential to help patients with sensory, cognitive and...
Tools like VR have the potential to help patients with sensory, cognitive and motor-related disabilities who are unable to use traditional art media in therapeutic ways or who need alternative options for creative self-expression.

Is VR the next big thing in art therapy?

The ever-expanding field of virtual reality (VR) has been used in health care settings like physical rehabilitation. It’s also made its way into therapy settings to reduce phobias and delusions. Could creative arts therapies be the next frontier for VR? Researchers from Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions in the Creative Arts Therapies Department conducted a study to see if VR can be used as an expressive tool in art therapy.

“Art therapy is founded on the idea that creative expression with an art therapist facilitates communication and problem solving, reduces inhibition, alleviates depressive symptoms and promotes personal development,” said lead author of the study Girija Kaimal, EdD, an associate professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions.

VR can facilitate the exploration of imaginal worlds, which is a central tenet of the creative processes of both art and play. Tools like VR also have the potential to help patients with sensory, cognitive and motor-related disabilities who are unable to use traditional art media in therapeutic ways or who need alternative options for creative self-expression. “With the availability of cost-effective VR solutions, we are seeing an increased adoption of these technologies in hospitals, clinics and healthcare facilities,” said Arun Ramakrishnan, PhD, director of Research Labs in the College of Nursing and Health Professions and co-investigator on this project.

In the study, five men and 12 women engaged in free-from, immersive VR art making for about 20 to 25 minutes.

Is VR the next big thing in art therapy?

The art therapy sessions were conducted with the HTC VIVE VR headset, remote control devices and Leap Motion controller running on a personal computer that could support a session in a virtual space. The software used was Tilt Brush by Google, to create 3D images in VR; Kodon, for virtual sculpting; and Nature Treks, for an immersive three-dimensional environment for relaxation.

After the session, participants were invited to save their artwork and talk about their experience with the art therapist. “Most participants reported feeling energized and elated by the experience of being in an imaginal space that was unlike anything that existed in the material world,” said Kaimal. “Some were, however, disappointed by the lack of tangible, physical engagement with the medium and for a few, the experience was disorienting.”

Creative expression in VR reduced inhibitions, activated full-body movements and enhanced mood and creative play exploration among participants. They enjoyed the 3D virtual environment and being able to see the art from different angles and perspectives. It also challenged the participants’ perceptions of physical reality, traditional art making and art media.

The study did find some downsides to VR in art therapy. VR can be disorienting for those with cognitive, perception and/or inner ear issues. Researchers suggest further exploration of how these experiences might differ for individuals with clinical conditions, differences in physical and/or mental functioning and comfort with digital media.

The digital form meant it was easy to store and save the finished — or, in some cases, unfinished — art, but some participants mentioned it was dissatisfying to not have a tangible product. “This study provides the groundwork for VR as an art therapy tool, especially as the technology becomes more sophisticated,” said Kaimal.

Researchers from the College of Nursing and Health Professions are continuing this work through several ongoing immersive reality projects in the College’s VR labs. “These applications are not only improving health and wellness but also enhancing learning,” said Deborah Clegg, PhD, associate dean of research in the College of Nursing and Health Professions. “Drexel is on the cutting edge of incorporating this technology into the classroom to enhance education and ultimately health care.”

Subscribe to our newsletter

Related articles

Icaros: Flight simulator home trainer

Icaros: Flight simulator home trainer

Researchers tested whether full-body exergaming in virtual reality can be appropriately applied for training and therapy purposes.

Virtual reality: Avatars against obesity

Virtual reality: Avatars against obesity

A collaborative project develops virtual reality methods to positively affect the body perception of obese patients.

Personalised VR could help improve mental health

Personalised VR could help improve mental health

New tool LifePathVR will enable new forms of self-reflection on our journey through life and contribute to our mental health and well-being.

Virtual rehab: How gamification can help stroke recovery

Virtual rehab: How gamification can help stroke recovery

Researchers at the University of East Anglia are pioneering virtual reality (VR) rehabilitation for stroke survivors, using low cost videogame technology.

Mirror therapy VR game improves patient experience

Mirror therapy VR game improves patient experience

Researchers have developed a virtual reality therapy game (iVRT) which could provide relief for patients suffering from chronic pain and mobility issues.

VR therapy treats autism phobias

VR therapy treats autism phobias

Immersive virtual reality has been shown to help children with autism with nearly 45% remaining free from their fears and phobias six months after treatment.

Fight recurring nightmares with VR

Fight recurring nightmares with VR

Researchers say virtual reality could have real long-term benefits for people, particularly children, gripped by scary dreams.

Fighting phobias with virtual reality

Fighting phobias with virtual reality

A study provides first evidence that psychological therapy can be successfully delivered in virtual reality.

Virtual reality helps to reduce children’s fear of needles

Virtual reality helps to reduce children’s fear of needles

Are virtual reality headsets a means to decrease fear and pain associated with immunizations in pediatric patients?

Popular articles