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Technology: Virtual reality is being harnessed to help encourage aquaphobic children into the pool

Virtual reality is being harnessed to help encourage aquaphobic children into the pool. Tom Walker finds out more about a Swedish project looking to turn 4,000 water-fearing children into competent swimmers

by Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Sports Management Sep 2016 issue 126
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Children get ready to tackle the water after their VR experience
Children get ready to tackle the water after their VR experience

Olympic champion swimmer Adam Peaty, who broke his own world record en route to gold in the 100m breaststroke final in Rio last month, doesn’t exactly come across as someone who’s scared of water. Yet, following his remarkable victory, it was revealed that as a child he was so petrified of water that his mum Caroline even struggled to bathe him.

"He used to scream every time he got in the bath," Peaty’s grandmother, Mavis, revealed on morning TV a day after his success in Rio. "When his mum took him to the pool to learn to swim, he used to scream there too – so she had to ask a friend to take him because it broke her heart to see him like that."

FEAR FACTOR
It’s clear that, as a child, Peaty probably belonged to the 2 per cent of people estimated to suffer from aquaphobia – an irrational fear of water.

The condition is particularly harmful for children, as it can prevent them from learning a crucial life skill which will keep them fit and healthy throughout life and potentially get them into sport, and for those living in an environment where there’s a lot of water, not being able to swim could be catastrophic.

"One in five Swedish children can’t swim and a fear of water is one of the prime reasons," says Karin Rosell, head of brand and marketing for energy provider E.ON’s Swedish operations. "For a land which is full of lakes and surrounded by sea, that is one in five too many. As we’re one of the main sponsors of the Swedish Swimming Federation (SSF), it’s a topic close to us and we wanted to do something about it."

After some research and a brainstorming session – together with its creative agency, M&C Saatchi – E.ON wanted to concentrate on the 20 per cent of Swedish children who couldn’t swim, due to their fear of water. The team at Saatchi then suggested the use of virtual reality in order to help make children more comfortable with the idea of water.

PLUNGING IN
To help children overcome their fears, E.ON and Saatchi set out to produce a video to convince them that swimming was a fun and safe activity and there was nothing to worry about. Called The Power of Swimming, the project aims to help children clear that crucial first hurdle – to get them into the pool.

Through E.ON’s sponsorship agreement with the SSF, the project team was able to gain access to a rare resource – famous faces. Three of Sweden’s most successful swimmers - Simon Sjödin, Erik Persson and Jennie Johansson – were recruited, and a video was produced using VR cameras in which the trio virtually guides the viewer into the pool. Once in the pool, the swimmers coach and guide the viewer on breathing and basic swimming techniques – and even encourage them to plunge beneath the surface.

The footage – which has been made available for all iPhone or Android devices – can be viewed using a special headset, into which the user’s smartphone can be slotted, along with earphones. E.ON, which has funded the entire project, has made 4,000 headsets available for free to be distributed to children.

"The headseats can be ordered online," says Christina Sandin, project leader at SSF. "The project is all about getting more young children to enjoy swimming. It is the largest participation project we’ve been involved in for a number of years."

To raise awareness of the availability of the headsets, Saatchi has produced a promotional video, which begins with a group of young children – all with a fear of water sharing their stories. It is very moving to watch them explain how they have suffered due to their phobia. "It makes me sad when my friends go swimming but I can’t," says one.

The power of VR is then demonstrated as each aquaphobic child sits down to try the headset and to view the footage involving the three Olympic stars. The change seems to happen immediately, as they get to ‘experience’ a swimming pool – in virtual form – for the very first time. After initial hesitations, it’s obvious each child warms to the idea and by the end of the video it seems they can’t wait to try the real thing. An opportunity to do just that is then offered, as after their VR experience, the children get to meet the three swimmers in a real pool – and the results which follow are amazing as they take to the water.  

The project has been well received not just by parents, but by experts in the field. Swedish psychologist Philip Lindner, from the University of Stockholm, has studied and used virtual reality in treating a number of phobias.

"I think the Power of Swimming project does a good job of showcasing the power and potential of VR technology to improve health and wellbeing," says Lindner. "We know from two decades of research that proper VR exposure therapy is an effective treatment for a number of fears, phobias and anxieties.

"In the case of Power of Swimming, I hope it succeeds in getting people to sign up to swim school.?

"It is an interesting question whether a shorter, try-it-out-yourself experience such as this one can have an impact by providing a safe learning environment for people to do something about their fear so that they can enjoy the benefits of overcoming it."

Whether any of the 4,000 children given the opportunity to rid their fear of water will follow in the wake of Adam Peaty to the Olympic podium remains to be seen – but there is no doubt the pioneering project is changing lives for the better.

Virtual treatments

Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRE), uses three-dimensional computer simulation and is now an accepted method of  treating panic and anxiety disorders – such as claustrophobia, fear of flying and panic disorders. The idea behind VRE is to place the sufferer in a computer-generated world in which they are able to face their fears by experiencing stimuli related to their phobias.

Wearing a headset and stereo earphones, the “patient” can be given visual and auditory cues, depending on what is needed. As each session is monitored, the patients are then taught how to control automatic responses to anxiety-provoking situations.

Philip Lindner on VR treatment

Why is VR so useful in treating fears?

Psychologist Philip Lindner is a specialist in VR therapies
Psychologist Philip Lindner is a specialist in VR therapies

“The best way to rid oneself of fear and phobia is controlled, graded exposure to the thing that makes you scared – be it water, spiders, thunderstorms or whatever – and remaining in the fearful situation until the fear has subsided so that you learn that the fear will always subside and that it was not as bad as you thought.

In traditional exposure therapy, we use real water, dogs etc, and VR exposure therapy works according to the same principle, but we use virtual water and virtual spiders instead. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter if the fear provoking stimuli is virtual or real – as long as the experience of fear is. Plus, VR also allows us to do a lot of things that cannot be done in the real world.

For example, at Stockholm University, we have recently developed a gamified self-help application to treat spider phobia that anyone can download from a digital store. The preliminary results show that it does indeed make people significantly less scared of spiders. This is pretty amazing considering that it only takes three hours to complete, there is no therapist, and that it runs on an £80 VR headset.”

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