How pedophiles could be better diagnosed -- and possibly treated -- using virtual reality

Virtual reality is most closely associated with video games. That’s with good reason: The major headsets from Facebook (Oculus Rift), HTC (Vive), and Sony (PlayStation VR) are primarily intended for use with video games.

But VR is being used for much more, from treating PTSD to arguing court cases to understanding — and potentially treating — pedophiles.

In the latest episode of our Codebreaker podcast, host Ben Johnson speaks with Dr. Patrice Renaud, a psychologist at the Philippe Penel Institute in Montreal, Canada. Dr. Renaud and his team are using VR “to try and identify which patients might endanger children in the outside world, and essentially keep them off the street,” says Johnson.

Patients are asked to put on a VR headset, and they are presented with an animated VR experience.

“What we develop is, strictly speaking, child pornography,” says Renaud. “But we have a licence to do that. So of course it’s strictly prohibited to use that in other contexts.”

The patient’s arousal is measured, and the results are tracked; the procedure is intended as an assessment of the individual’s ability to suppress pedophilic urges.

“The tricky part of using interactive virtual reality to treat sex offenders is to make sure the guy won’t leave the lab with more fantasies than he had previously,” says Renaud. “That’s why we want to start with individuals who are incarcerated or hospitalized.” 

It may even be used to treat pedophilia some day, as a means of educating patients on the cues associated with dangerous behaviour. “We can use virtual environments, for instance, to help individuals to recognise cues in the environment that would be problematic,” says Renaud. 

Check out the full episode right here:

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