Virtual Reality health appointments can help patients address eating disorders

Virtual Reality health appointments can help patients address eating disorders


IMAGE: Images taken from the virtual reality environment of a therapy appointment.
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Credit: Dr Jim Ang – University of Kent

Research from the University of Kent, the Research centre on Interactive Media, Smart systems and Emerging technologies – RISE Ltd and the University of Cyprus has revealed that Virtual Reality (VR) technology can have significant impact on the validity of remote health appointments for those with eating disorders, through a process called Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET).

This paper demonstrates the potential value of Multi-User Virtual Reality (MUVR) remote psychotherapy for those with body shape and weight concerns.

In the study, published in Human-Computer Interaction Journal, participants and therapists were fitted with VR Head-Mounted Displays and introduced to each other within the VR system. Participant would then customize their virtual avatar according to their look (body shape and size, skin tone and hair colour and shape). Participant and therapist were then “teleported” to two Virtual Environment interventions for several discussions, building up to the Mirror Exposure.

Mirror Exposure involves confrontation in a mirror with ones’ shape and body. In the MUVR, the participant faces the virtual avatar they customized to match their own physical body. Here, they were again able to adjust body shapes using virtual sliders, change clothing, skin tone, as well as hair style and colour. Clothing was then gradually reduced until the participant’s avatar was in their virtual underwear.

The participant was then asked to examine each part of their body and perform adjustments while describing their feelings, thoughts and concerns with the therapist, leading to virtual exposure therapy for the patient to their body shape and size through the customised avatar.

The study found that the avatar of the therapist was vital to the participant. The cartoonish avatar facilitated greater openness from participants, whilst therapist avatars in human-form represented the idea of negative judgement. In post-session interviews, participants noted the lack of fear of judgement as enabling them to commit to the session’s aims.

Dr Jim Ang, Senior Lecturer in Multimedia/Digital Systems and Supervisor of the study said: ‘The potential of Virtual Reality being used in addressing health issues with patients, remotely and without the issue of potential judgement, is for VR to be utilised throughout the health sector. Without the issue of judgement, which people can fear in advance of even seeking medical advice, VR can give people the confidence to engage with and embrace medical advice. In terms of the technical capabilities, the potential for VR to aid in remote non-contact medical appointments between patients and practitioners is huge, due particular consideration in times of pandemic.’

Dr Maria Matsangidou, Research Associate at RISE Ltd and Experimental Researcher of the study said: ‘Multi-User Virtual Reality is an innovative medium for psychotherapeutic interventions that allows for the physical separation of therapist and patient, providing thus more ‘comfortable’ openness by the patients. Exposure to patient worries about body shape and size may exhibit anxious reactions, but through the remote exposure therapy this can elicit new learning that helps the patient to shape new experiences.’


“Now I Can See Me” Designing a Multi-User Virtual Reality Remote Psychotherapy for Body Weight and Shape Concerns is published in Human-Computer Interaction Journal.


School of Engineering and Digital Arts, University of Kent

Dr Maria Matsangidou, Dr Boris Otkhmezuri, Dr Chee Siang (Jim) Ang

Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

Prof Riva Giuseppe, Prof Andrea Gaggioli

School of Psychology, University of Cyprus

Prof Marios Avraamides, Despoina Iosif, Dr Maria Karekla

Notes to Editor:

Exposure Therapy (ET) is a common behaviour therapy treatment for psychological problems involving fear and anxiety. Through repeated exposures to the object of fear or anxiety, participants develop better emotional management. Notably, Virtual Reality (VR) has demonstrated success in the treatment of anxiety, social and general phobias, low self-esteem, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

For further information or interview requests, please contact Sam Wood at the University of Kent Press Office.

Tel: 01227 823581


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Notes to Editors

The University of Kent is a leading UK university producing world-class research, rated internationally excellent and leading the way in many fields of study. Our 20,000 students are based at campuses and centres in Canterbury, Medway, Brussels and Paris.

With 97% of our research judged to be of international quality in the most recent Research Assessment Framework (REF2014), our students study with some of the most influential thinkers in the world. Universities UK recently named research from the University as one of the UK’s 100 Best Breakthroughs of the last century for its significant impact on people’s everyday lives.

We are renowned for our inspirational teaching. Awarded a gold rating, the highest, in the UK Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), we were presented with the Outstanding Support for Students award at the 2018 Times Higher Education (THE) Awards for the second year running.

Our graduates are equipped for a successful future allowing them to compete effectively in the global job market. More than 95% of graduates find a job or study opportunity within six months.

The University is a truly international community with over 40% of our academics coming from outside the UK and our students representing over 150 nationalities.

We are a major economic force in south east England, supporting innovation and enterprise. We are worth £0.9 billion to the economy of the south east and support more than 9,400 jobs in the region.

In March 2018, the Government and Health Education England (HEE) announced that the joint bid by the University of Kent and Canterbury Christ Church University for funded places to establish a medical school has been successful. The first intake of undergraduates to the Kent and Medway Medical School will be in September 2020.

We are proud to be part of Canterbury, Medway and the county of Kent and, through collaboration with partners, work to ensure our global ambitions have a positive impact on the region’s academic, cultural, social and economic landscape.


The Research Centre on Interactive Media, Smart Systems and Emerging Technologies is a Centre of Excellence in Research and Innovation on Information and Communication Technologies in Cyprus, aiming to empower knowledge and technology transfer in the region. It is a joint venture between the three public universities of Cyprus – University of Cyprus, Cyprus University of Technology, and, Open University of Cyprus – the Municipality of Nicosia, and two renowned international partners, the Max Planck Institute for Informatics, Germany, and the University College London, United Kingdom.

RISE has received funding from the
European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No. 739578 RISE has received funding from the Government of the Republic of Cyprus through the Directorate General for European Programs, Coordination and Development.

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