Why you should care

Because someday, your therapist might use virtual reality. 

Albert “Skip” Rizzo greets me with a fist bump. The ponytailed 60-year-old rides a Harley and gives off a 1970s vibe despite his staid, light pink button-down and jeans. We’re on the fourth floor of the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies — a sleek building in Los Angeles’ tech hub, with Facebook, Google and Yahoo just next door — where Rizzo is the director of medical virtual reality.

Rizzo’s office is a veritable VR graveyard: clunky headsets, skull knickknacks, piles of books and awards. He tosses me the Oculus Rift, Facebook’s virtual reality headset. Suddenly I’m in Connecticut, sitting at his family’s Christmas dinner table while his father says grace.

This trained psychologist and virtual reality pioneer has been at the forefront of medical applications of the technology — using VR to treat everything from brain injuries to autism and post-traumatic stress disorder — for more than two decades. At last, the time seems ripe; a recent report by Goldman Sachs predicts an $80 billion VR market by 2025, the size of today’s desktop PC market. Last year, Rizzo received the Pioneer in Medicine Award from the Society for Brain Mapping and Therapeutics and the Brain Mapping Foundation. Michael Roy, director of military internal medicine at the Uniformed Services University, who met Rizzo 12 years ago, calls him “the godfather of virtual reality.” Another calls him “the king, a very special guy with a special energy” — that’s Barbara Rothbaum, the first to file a patent for the psychological application of VR and vice chair of clinical research in psychiatry at Emory University, where she works with veterans. If he’s the king, she’s the queen.

There could be a virtual reality for every mass trauma, from rocket attacks in Syria to Boko Haram suicide bombings in northern Nigeria.

Rizzo does much of his research with help from $20 million in grants from the military’s Army Research Lab, and is best known for his Bravemind system, a virtual reality battlefield used to treat combat veterans with PTSD in more than 40 hospitals. The idea: VR amplifies a therapist’s ability to treat patients using exposure therapy, a popular technique where patients gradually relive bad experiences to decrease triggered fears. In Rizzo’s virtual Iraq and Afghanistan — populated by images of military helicopters, mass graves and IED explosions — the therapist can tailor encounters to a wide range of stimuli and control how long or graphic the experience is.

As Rizzo shows me his collection of outdated devices, he talks me through a 30-year timeline of ups and downs in his world. Until maybe five years ago, Rizzo says, periods of “dashed hope” followed swells of investor buzz. Rizzo first began thinking about the VR and psych combo while working as a rehabilitation therapist in the early 1990s. Young patients with traumatic brain injuries wouldn’t do their exercises, but did love their Game Boys. It clicked.

Along with gadget sightings in the lab come glimpses of men in Army fatigues. A former Vietnam protester, Rizzo, like many in his love-not-war generation, grew up seeing veterans in small-town Connecticut. But he’s not solely focused on assisting people out of their combat daze — he’ll soon turn to victims of other mass traumas. He’s already created a VR mock-up of last year’s terrorist attacks at Paris’ Bataclan concert hall. It’s disturbingly real. There’s that alleyway, the one on news broadcasts worldwide, with people spilling out into the street, some bleeding or limping and others running. I’m stricken. For Rizzo, though, there’s a certain official distance from the horrors, filled in by a giddiness for the potential power of the technology on the human psyche. He may as well be showing me a new video game. And to him this is just the beginning — there could be a virtual reality for every mass trauma, from rocket attacks in Syria to Boko Haram suicide bombings in northern Nigeria. He will play with these realities right along the ones he invents to help autistic adults practice interview skills.

Understandably, the methods have their detractors. The biggest skepticism, says Rizzo, comes from some of the world leaders in traditional exposure therapy, like its creator, Edna Foa. It’s too expensive and distracting from the therapist’s objectives, they argue. Others question effectiveness after a certain time period away from the traumatic event. Which may be why the military hasn’t yet provided funding for a Vietnam version of Bravemind, says Roy. (Neither Foa nor the Department of Defense provided comment.)

Here, he and his team ideate, prototype, publish … and release their work, open source, into the wild — in keeping with the democratic tech zeitgeist. One such release came from Palmer Luckey, who worked in Rizzo’s lab for a summer. Soon after he left, he launched a crowdfunding campaign for what would become the Oculus; in 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus for $2 billion. Rizzo says better tech in the world is good for all of us. But, well … he wouldn’t mind a little credit. Especially because of what he’s up to now: seeking more funding, by doing as Luckey did — turning to the crowdfunding masses.

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