Grand Rapids-Based Counseling Center Pioneering Virtual-Reality Therapy

Technology continues to change business delivery models and has enabled businesses to connect with customers in innovative ways. It’s an enabler which, if used strategically, can catapult a business to an entirely new level by helping to manage back office operations more efficiently, creating a whole new line of business enabled by technology and could expand on or modify technology to help enhance business offerings.

Grand Rapids-based VR Therapy and Counseling Center started providing therapy and counseling services in West Michigan for individuals, couples, children and families in January, 2015. Since that time, its practice has grown both in the number of services offered and in the variety of technology used to help those move forward with their lives.

Founder and software developer, Thomas J. Overly, LMSW, is a Psychotherapist/Counselor and has developed a virtual realty concept which enables therapists to engage clients using real-life stimuli to address various, challenging situations.

As a result of this innovative technology, the company was recently named one of six grand prize winners which won $30,000 as part of the Comcast Business Innovations 4 Entrepreneurs (I4E) contest. I4E is national competition that awards cash and consultation services to the selected winners who submitted entries explaining how technology can be leveraged to enhance their business.

Overly, along with other winners, will have the opportunity to brainstorm with business experts about how to grow their business.

This is the second year in a row that Michigan has had a grand prize winner. Last year, Pablo Ortega of Bloomfield Township-based Fresh Co. Home Inc. was one of the national grand prize winners.

I recently talked to Overly about his technology, plans for growth and how $30,000 will benefit his business.

Lee: You have an unique business concept based on technology and, specifically, virtual reality. Exactly what is it and how did you come up with the idea?

Overly: Virtual Reality (VR) is a powerful new tool that can be used to create environments, scenarios, and a wide range of stimuli that can be used in conjunction with cognitive behavioral and other treatment approaches to a wide range of emotional and behavioral issues. The system employed at the VR Therapy and Counseling Center uses technology that is capable of creating the visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile components necessary to address all of the unique challenges faced by individuals seeking treatment. Rather than having to rely on individuals imagining the relevant images, scents, sounds, and feelings, or giving them homework to expose themselves to scenarios without any guidance or assistance, our therapists are able to gradually and safely expose them to all these elements in the comfort of our facilities.

Lee: How does it benefit your clients?

Overly: The evidence showing the efficacy of VR-based approaches to trauma and anxiety has grown steadily over the last decade as the technology has both improved and become more affordable to a wide range of practitioners. One of the first successful applications of VR therapy, virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET), involved Ground Zero construction workers who were experiencing post-traumatic stress symptoms in the aftermath of 9/11. Since that early study, the evidence for the efficacy of VR tools in exposure-based approaches to anxiety has continued to grow. An important finding from across many of these studies is that, when compared to traditional in vivo exposure approaches, individuals are more likely to stick with, and complete, their treatment programs when VR tools are used.

Lee: How is technology changing the service provider, patient interaction experience and how does it help your clients?

Overly: The technology is enabling us to interact with clients in ways that were previously impossible.

Our new behavioral rehearsal system will use virtual reality, along with facial and full-body motion tracking, which will allow our therapists to precisely control characters within the virtual environments we create. For instance, if a teen is having difficulty in school settings, we will be able to place him or her in a virtual school setting where he or she will be able to learn more effective interpersonal skills, with our therapists taking on the roles of other children, teachers, etc.

The system will use voice modulation, along with the motion tracking, in such a way that any therapist will be able to control any character within the simulation in real time, mapping all movement and communication in a way that matches the specific character being controlled. For instance, if a female teenager were having difficulties interacting with her peers, our therapists will be able to take on the role of any other teenagers in the simulation, regardless of age, sex, and physical characteristics.

Lee: How does this fundamentally change delivery of therapy services?

Overly: In the past, therapists have had to resign themselves to conducting “roleplay” sessions in their offices, but with this technology, our therapists will be able to do what was previously impossible: place individuals in the exact settings they are having difficulties with and then present them with controlled interactions that will help them overcome their challenges.

Lee: You were recently selected as one on six national winners as part of a major contest and recently won $30,000. As a small business owner, how does this help your business and are your plans for using it?  

Overly: The cost to develop our systems has been substantial. VR is a graphics-intensive process, which requires the computer to essentially render to high-definition images simultaneously (stereoscopy) in order to fully immerse clients in the environments. With the prize money, we with be able to further optimize our hardware, ensuring the most immersive experience possible for the individuals we work with.

The second area we will be able to apply the money to will be the launch of our systems for other organizations and practices. This service will include a complete package, training, and support for those who want to integrate these tools into their current services.

Lee: Is the product available yet? If not, when?

Overly: The systems we are using are currently only available at VR Therapy and Counseling Center. We anticipate launching our services for other practitioners by the third quarter of 2016.

Lee: And where do you see your company three to five years from now? 

Overly: In three to five years, we would like to be national providers of VR systems and software focused on behavioral therapy and training in a wide range of industries, where applicable.

Lee: What advice can you share with small business owners contemplating incorporating technology into their services?

Overly: If the technology is capable of making your business more efficient, effective and productive, then the learning time and any associated expenses should be weighed against these benefits. Many businesses tend to shy away from technology simply because they haven’t taken the time to learn about its features, uses and potential benefits.

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