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Virtual Reality expanding in phobia and PTSD therapy, education, gaming

It always sounded like science fiction — technology that could make you feel like you're standing on the edge of a building, walking on a balance beam, or sailing in the middle of the ocean.

It always sounded like science fiction — technology that could make you feel like you're standing on the edge of a building, walking on a balance beam, or sailing in the middle of the ocean.

But now, virtual reality technology has advanced to the point where that dream...has become a reality.

Virtual Reality headsets were one of the big-ticket items landing under Christmas trees last year, with many consumers ready to step into the 3-D gaming world. And as popular as those trendy pieces were, the entertainment industry isn't the only place VR is striking it big in 2017.

Experts predict you'll see more headsets in the classroom, in doctors offices treating phobias and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD], in the workplace, and on the internet bringing you to the latest news scene. Virtual Reality has been around for about three decades, but past issues — technology was too expensive, the equipment was clunky, people got motion sickness, the software wasn't realistic — held the product back from popularity on the market.

"In the last two or three years, there has been a real frenzy about the equipment," Dr. Skip Rizzo, a professor for USC's Institute for Creative Technologies, said. "Pretty soon, a virtual reality headset is going to be like a toaster. Everyone is going to have one. You may not use it every day, but every home will have one."

The education field is looking into the technology as well, possibly for surgical training, combat training, and special needs classes.

"Autistic children sometimes take better to virtual reality - to computers - than they do to humans," Dr. Brenda Wiederhold, president of Virtual Medical Center in San Diego, said. "We can train autistic children how to cross streets, how to order at a restaurant, how to behave more social appropriately."

Wiederhold's clinic already uses the technology for medical therapy to help patients deal with PTSD, anxiety, phobias, and phantom limb pain. She predicts more clinics using VR will pop-up in California and across the country within the near future.

One point she emphasizes is that the virtual reality headsets are just a tool in addition to cognitive behavioral therapy. Here's how it works: A basic example is the fear of flying. The idea is to change the way you think about flying. By strapping on the headset, their clinic eases you into situations at your pace — packing your bags, walking into an airport, lining up at security, getting on the plane. You make yourself comfortable with each session.

Weiderhold says patients typically go through 12 — 20 sessions. They have a 92 percent success rate with phobias and 80 percent with PTSD.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has vowed to make Sacramento a new hub for tech startups — bringing in more jobs and partnering up with the Bay Area Council to convince big companies to expand locally before going out of state. Sacramento's first virtual reality gaming center, Zion VR, opened this past December in the Arden area.

"We have eight stations. They can play as teams. They can play against each other," Zion VR owner Sean Le said.

Le says the appeal to a center like this is the fact that groups can come play at the same time, as opposed to at home with possibly only one expensive headset.

Several tech companies are stepping up to the plate, which is a good thing for the VR consumer. Some headsets at the top of the market include: HTC Vive, Occulus Rift, Google Daydream, Sony’s Playstation VR, Samsung Gear, and Google Cardboard.

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