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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Virtual reality creates a 3-D world using goggles for the full effect, though it's still pretty good on a flat screen with surround speakers. It's more than a cool tool for video games. The US military uses virtual reality to teach the dangers of foreign war zones. Some researchers are hoping it might help troubled veterans on the home front. DAY TO DAY technology contributor Xeni Jardin has this report.

(Soundbite of virtual reality simulation of a war zone)

XENI JARDIN reporting:

We're inside a virtual reality simulation of a war zone in Iraq and the sounds we're hearing are intended to heal.

(Soundbite of virtual reality simulation of a war zone)

JARDIN: It's all part of a high-tech system designed to treat service members suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The LA-based Institute for Creative Technologies and the US Office of Naval Research are developing the technology to help vets come to terms with what they've experienced in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and the project began with a video game.

Mr. SKIP RIZZO (Institute For Creative Technologies): Well, I like to look at this as from training to toy to treatment.

JARDIN: Skip Rizzo is a psychologist and virtual therapy developer with the Institute for Creative Technologies. This University of Southern California lab brings together game industry and Hollywood special effects whizzes to develop new tech tools for the military.

(Soundbite of Full Spectrum Warrior)

Unidentified Man #1: Rated M for mature.

JARDIN: Full Spectrum Warrior is a video game that was originally developed as a training tool for the Army. Now Rizzo and his colleagues have borrowed components of the Xbox version of the game to fashion a virtual-reality world that simulates triggers of combat stress. In an ICT research office, Rizzo connects a laptop to demonstrate. We're given the option of navigating a number of wartime environments: a sandy road, a marketplace, a patch of trees and rocks. But Rizzo chooses an urban warfare scenario.

Mr. RIZZO: And so here's a city scene and this one will have some sound in a minute.

JARDIN: We're looking at a video game landscape of an Iraqi road. Abandoned cars and debris are pushed up against cement walls. It sounds like any street until...

(Soundbite of gunfire)

JARDIN: But what makes this therapy instead of a video game? Rizzo says it's the involvement of a trained psychotherapist.

Mr. RIZZO: The clinician is constantly monitoring the client's state, whether it's their state by their physiology is being measured in a heart-rate monitor or a skin-conductance monitor to make sure that they're presenting stimuli at a level that they're assured the client can handle.

JARDIN: A therapist can activate or remove the sound of gunshots or the sight of smoke depending on a patient's reaction. The idea is to re-introduce the patients to the traumatic experience gradually, until the memory no longer incapacitates them. Eventually, Rizzo believes that the therapy can include other stimuli: vibrations to simulate the impact of bombs, rumbling of tanks. They've already done substantial work to re-create the smells of the war zone.

Mr. RIZZO: Thus far, we've got smell for burning rubber, diesel fuel, gun powder, body odor, garbage and Iraqi spices.

JARDIN: It's this potential for re-creating all aspects of the trauma that may make virtual reality a good PTSD treatment, according to James Spira, director of the Health Psychology program at the San Diego Naval Hospital. He's conducting an experiment treating Marine and Navy personnel, many like one Marine returning from Iraq who had unexpected symptoms after a severe wound to his shoulder.

Mr. JAMES SPIRA (Director, Health Psychology, San Diego Naval Hospital): One of the first things out of his mouth was, `You know, the pain was pretty intense. But what's more intense is that I hear the voices of my fallen comrades all the time.' I said, `You mean you hear them in your imagination, you keep thinking back to it?' `No, actually hear them now in the room, calling to me.'

JARDIN: At first Spira says he was surprised at how well the therapy worked with his patients. Early results from the trial suggest that virtual-reality therapy is uniquely suited to a generation of service members raised on video games. Spira feels that the game aspects of the treatment could lessen the stigma associated with getting therapy.

Mr. SPIRA: Imagine a tough Marine over there kicking in doors, shooting it out, coming back and getting shell-shocked, the old term is. That kid is not going to be likely to go and sit down with a psychotherapist and talk about his feelings. He's much more likely to hear about this really cool virtual-reality therapy where he can learn a skill and face his fears using a computer-assisted game.

JARDIN: Trials of the therapy are also under way at an Army medical center in Hawaii and at Camp Pendleton Marine Base in California.

(Soundbite of game)

Unidentified Man #2: Play it on Xbox 5.

JARDIN: For NPR News, I'm Xeni Jardin.

CHADWICK: For pictures from the virtual-reality simulation, please go to our Web site, npr.org.

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