I have a fear of flying. The kind of phobia that has me up at night in the days leading up to a flight and gripping the armrests in terror. It’s an irrational fear that developed sometime in the last five years – but it exists. I’ve tried a bunch of different things, meditation, Xanax, distracting games and calming music, but nothing has helped much. Today I tried using VR to help me cope. I discovered that it did help, in a surprisingly measurable way.
I’ve flown all my life and used to love it. Recently a lot of weird anxiety comes up with flying. In the weeks leading up to a flight I have a hard time sleeping. During a flight I can break out in hives, my chest tightens up, and it feels hard to breathe, think, even answer simple questions. My heart races so fast it feels like it will beat right out of my chest.
My hope was that taking VR onto the plane would help me in a few ways. I hoped the illusion of expansive space could counter my claustrophobia from being penned into a cramped compartment. I hoped the immersive nature of VR would help me transport myself someplace besides an airplane. I’m not above a little escapism.
I had two flights, totaling about seven hours in the air from San Francisco to Fort Myers. On the first flight, before we even took off, I started feeling the tightness in my chest. I was jittery and cotton-mouthed with nerves, but hopeful. My heart was doing jumping jacks as usual.
I was off to a bit of a rough start. My “window” seat was a lie. Instead of a window, I got a blank wall. I depend on that little square foot portal to the outside world. Looking out the window is one of the little rituals that gets me through a flight. I check it to make sure we’re level to the horizon. When I’m trapped on an airplane with nowhere to look I get dizzy. But today VR would be my only window to any world beyond seat 12A. Once we reached cruising altitude I slipped my headset on and fired up a game hoping to forget about my surroundings.
Despite the fact that the headset was basically jammed up against my face (literally my phone was suspended inches from my eyes), the effect was the exact opposite. The parallax of VR and orientation tracking harmonized to give the illusion of open space. It was like being in my own personal holodeck. Instead of staring at the back of 11A, I looked into the distance of a city stretched ahead of me.
Usually, I’ll play a cell phone game or read a book on a flight, but these don’t mask the fact that my body is catapulting untethered 35,000 feet above the ground. I can’t ignore the fact that I’m on a plane. With my overly active imagination, every dip, every blip, and hum of the engine triggers invasive thoughts of plane engines cutting and the cabin dipping into a dive. Today, for a bit, I did find myself forgetting that I was on a plane. It wasn’t the whole time, mostly just when the game got intense. I think these spells of deep immersion let me reset my nerves to calm down a bit. With a handheld game, I still see the plane around me. Of all the light hitting my eye, a small portion represents the distraction. In the headset, virtually every photon hitting my retina reflected a synthesized world. Foam around the periphery even filtered out light pollution from the real world. What I saw is what I elected to see, and that gave me a sense of control.
The second flight had more turbulence than usual. The captain apologized, let us know about an alternative altitude we would take to help with the rough winds. He had the attendants stay seated when they would normally run beverage service. This is when I would usually be freaking out, but I noticed something I hadn’t thought to predict. Usually during turbulence I’m gripping the armrest in terror, awaiting death. My hands sweat bullets. After finishing a full game in VR, my hands were dry. This was pretty shocking, and is the most compelling evidence to me that there’s something real here. I was getting a break from fight or flight mode.
Wearing the headset, I saw a glittering sky above me, a mirrored aqueduct below, and dreamy buildings of an ancient city on either side. The game surrounded me, no matter where I looked. Years ago I visited sensory deprivation tank. The vacuum of sensation left me alone with my thoughts. VR seems to lie on the opposite end of the sensory spectrum. It’s immediate, attention-grabbing, and leaves little room for inner dialog. On this flight, that’s exactly what I was looking for.
By the end of the second flight I was pretty excited. Hands dryer. Heart steadier. My fear wasn’t completely neutralized, but the flights were definitely more tolerable. I’m kind of looking forward to my next flight back home.
So this initial test seemed great. I was engaged, distracted, transported somewhere I wanted to be. But while I love a good anecdote as much as the next person, what’s needed next is actual data. I’m convinced there’s something here, but before prescribing this as a phobic’s panacea, we need research. I’d like to see a comparison of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) response for people on comparable flights both with and without VR. This could be measured by galvanic skin response, basically checking for sweaty palms. It’s possible you could even control for similar flights by gauging turbulence using the accelerometer in the HMD.
Is it possible that the phenomenon of visual precedence, the brain’s prioritization of visual stimuli over conflicting sensory information, helped? The roar of the engine and the rocking turbulence didn’t bother me as much as usual. Even though my ears and my body were telling me I was on a plane, my eyes told me a different story. I even noticed that some turbulence during the boss fight was … kind of fun? It almost felt like the rumble of a gamepad. That sensory override might be illuminated by more research.
I suspect the feeling of agency, tackling specific goals and focusing my attention on missions in the game, also helped. There’s a feeling of powerlessness inherent to being a passenger. This probably isn’t specific to VR, but I bet most any game would help passengers regain a sense of control.
In any case, as much as I want this to be a real solution, my optimism is tempered by a few things. This was a super biased experiment. I really wanted it to work! I only tried it on one set of flights, and maybe the novelty of it was what I was responding to. I’ll be flying again on the 26th, so I’ll see if the benefits persist. People have asked me whether the cabin pressure, G-force, and other flight sensations can mess with your vestibular system in conjunction with VR. I didn’t get sick, but I also didn’t wear the headset during takeoff or landing and I didn’t play longer than an hour or so each flight.
Going forward, I plan to try a bunch of other apps and games and get a sense for what helps me most. I was comforted by the familiarity playing my own game, Bazaar, so I might suggest that people with similar phobias find a favorite VR app before taking VR on a flight. I’d love to hear from other folks coping with aerophobia. Does VR help? Which apps help most?
Theresa Duringer is an avid VR fan, and the co-founder of Temple Gates Games, the studio behind the award-winning Gear VR title, Bazaar. She is an artist and wild fashionista with a flair for incredible UI design.