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Virtual Reality - putting ourselves in the picture with the right frame of mind

After the excitement of an intrepid adventure into online therapy to survive the winds of change, for many, it's now time to get back to a face-to-face practice or a hybrid of both. Fortunately, I packed a trunk for this journey and I'm ready for the long-haul. When it comes to online therapy, I see myself as a world-wide traveller on the adventure of a life-time, instead of being on a package holiday.


I hate to admit it, but my impulsive transformation from integrative psychotherapist to cybertherapist may also have something to do with my age. On my last visit to Argos, I’m convinced the teenage store assistant gave me a funny look. For a second, I felt sure I had claimed the wrong order and instead of a brand new Oculus Quest headset I should probably have bought a Viewmaster. I wouldn’t call it a full mid-life crisis, but COVID definitely exacerbated my rebellious divorce with institutionalised thinking – it was never really a happy marriage. Creativity, online-therapy and more recently, VR and immersive environments were happy to beckon me with the promise of exciting, radical change and a new tribe of like-minded therapists to identify with. Professionally I feel like a wannabe 'wild-child' who got a tattoo and traded in the people-carrier for a space-ship. But after 18 months of fun, I’m still not ready to return to earth.

In a recent online conference, a well-respected pioneer of cybertherapy asked whether there will come a day when there isn’t a distinction between online and face-to-face therapy? When will it all become 'just' therapy? I hope that day comes soon, and that VR in therapy also becomes the norm instead of the extreme.

 

I can’t help being really excited by the tools that enable me to adapt images so that they are as vivid, detailed and multi-dimensional as our imaginations.

 

I still remember how excited I felt to discover that I could explore images, in addition to using apps and games in VR. I also wondered what it would feel like to take an image from a favourite children’s book, or maybe even our clients’ images into an endless, virtual chasm. So I downloaded an image from 'The Colour Monster' by Anna Llenas onto Mycybertherapyspace on CoSpaces* and nervously put on my Oculus headset. I remember gazing around the life-sized image, feeling disembodied, exposed and completely stranded. My excitement quickly gave way to anxiety; if it didn’t feel safe for me, how could it be a safe space for clients?

I had added a couple of 3D 'friends' which could move around the image; they gave the feeling that Colour Monster was not alone. Even though the original image has several layers and a clear boundary, there was something that felt un-natural about its appearance, now that it was no longer within the cover of a book. It was difficult for my mind to sit somewhere between 2D and 3D, almost as difficult as describing this entire VR experience using words and a screen. I’m learning that when it comes to 3D images and VR I can take nothing for granted. Where I used to rely on imagination and perhaps a little artistic licence, I now need to define each element of the experience more accurately. It’s not that VR is the wrong environment to explore 2D images, I just needed to learn how to think and orientate myself in 3D.

 

With the addition of a simple frame and treating the space as 3D rather than a flat canvass, I put myself in the picture and examined the image more deeply

 

I like to think that several years of personal therapy, self-development and psychotherapy training has allowed me to move on from linear and 2D thinking towards the richness of a multi-faceted world of feelings. I also like to imagine that I can help my clients to orientate their thoughts towards new ideas and different perspectives. So I can’t help being really excited by the tools that enable me to adapt images so that they are as vivid, detailed and multi-dimensional as our imaginations.


With the addition of a simple frame and treating the space as 3D rather than a flat canvass, I put myself in the picture and examined the image more deeply. I imagine I could ask a client which part of the image feels closest to them, and we could both take in the view and connect to the feelings. I would struggle to do this in the same way with the original ‘pop-up’ book. It’s not that one intervention is better than the other, they’re just different approaches to working with an image. Too often we're tempted to compare and contrast, polarising our thoughts instead of embracing the differences and benefits of both. When we do that, we run the risk of missing an entire discussion around what feels culturally comfortable for our clients.




For now, I’ll just describe how Colour Monster feels stuck in the past, (his background) and his memories of feeling lost and terrified. He’d like us to know that he feels ‘on edge’ unable to be in the ‘here and now’ (the foreground) never fully embracing the freedom he has had to leave the past behind. Sometimes he feels like he is in a totally different world to his friends. I can imagine Colour Monster feeling frustrated, describing his friends as ‘out of touch’, uncaring and absorbed in their own lives. Sometimes he feels jealous of them – compared to his dark forest, they exist in a space where the grass is definitely greener!

 

When our eyes, brain and my entire body are absorbing so much new information, a frame becomes more important than ever to hold the client, the image and their experience.

 

We also get to explore things from the perspective of Colour Monster’s friends. They feel sad that they are unable to reach him in the bleak, black world that is a different reality to theirs.


Adding a frame helps me to know where the image starts and ends and gives me a much-needed sense of scale and dimension. It provides a window on the vast space around me; we all know how the world seems a different place when viewed from the inside of a window. When our eyes, brain and my entire body are absorbing so much new information, a frame becomes more important than ever to hold the client, the image and their experience. I have never felt the need to physically ‘frame’ an image that my clients have produced face-to-face, even though I could apply the same thinking. Part of working online, especially in VR, involves being intentional; every step is exaggerated and every detail takes new meaning and importance.


I would never imagine that a symbolic feature, used by artists for centuries, could bring such focus, attention and reverence and help us make sense of an image and space in VR. The challenge now is to ‘lean into’ the learning about working in 3D and use images in VR to explore feelings at a deeper level. But maybe the mere mention of online tools and new learning leaves you feeling just like Colour Monster. Perhaps you’re ready to move beyond your fears about creative online therapy, but don't know how to escape from a bleak and scary space. If so, why not check out my 6-week Cyber-Confidence Challenge I support professionals just like you, to combine online skills with simple tools and concepts, taking you from feeling anxious to awesome! Colour Monster has inspired me to return to subject of backgrounds for my next blog post. Today we've put a frame into a vast VR space - who knows where we'll end up up next time!





'The Colour Monster' is written by Anna Llenas

*CoSpaces Edu is a mixed reality web-based application that allows users to create and engage with interactive media content. Used by permission.


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Lesley Simpson-Gray