The human brain is one of the most complex systems in existence, but with the passage of time new technologies are emerging that allow us to study its functioning and intervene in it effectively. Among these novel proposals are those that have to do with the use of virtual reality, that is, the design and modelling of fictitious environments that we can explore through electronic devices placed in our eyes, ears, etc.
Interview with Xavier Palomer, CEO of Psious
Today we interviewed Xavier Palomer , CEO and co-founder of Psious, an ambitious project born in Barcelona that aims to bring virtual reality sessions closer to clinical intervention.
What is Psious and how did the initial idea to undertake this project come about?
Psious Toolsuite is the first online platform especíﬁcamente created for mental health. It is an app designed by psychologists for psychologists that uses virtual reality and 3D technology for the treatment of anxiety disorders.
The project was started by Dani Roig, the other founder, and me. We met in physics school. Dani was afraid of flying and looking for a therapy to cure himself the idea came up. We wanted to improve cognitive-behavioral therapies with something more effective than imagination or in vivo. Today we can say that we are succeeding.
The project was born in Barcelona, where the effects of the economic crisis are still felt. How difficult is it for you to move the project forward from here? How have you experienced the process of seeking funding?
The process of seeking funding, not only in Spain, in Europe was very difficult or almost impossible to get funding. We got little at a huge cost. We had to go to the US to look for investors and, fortunately, we succeeded. A Silicon Valley (San Francisco) fund, Rothenburg Ventures, saw potential in our application and invested. In a round of financing, other funds invested, including CaixaHolding which is part of La Caixa. The process of seeking financing was very hard and we had to fight against many adversities, but the result has been worth every effort and minute invested.
It has been very difficult for us to start in Spain, to introduce technology in a market like psychology. We are creating a network of experts in virtual reality to learn and improve on this technology applied to the treatment of anxiety disorders. With this network we have treated more than 1000 patients.
Research on phobias and anxiety disorders using resources such as virtual reality has long been carried out. Why has it been used so little in clinical intervention?
Think that Virtual Reality is a technology that until today was used only by a few due to its high cost. 20 years of studies show that VR works in the field of mental health, but it has not been until now that we have been able to bring it into the practice at an affordable cost. One of Psious’ goals is to democratise VR for treatment and, frankly, we are slowly achieving this. Today, we can say that more than 500 mental health professionals already use this technology in their practices and that more than 1000 patients have already been successfully treated, even though we have only been on the market for a few months
Psious has received several national and international awards. How is he doing in the market?
The awards are only the cherry on top of good results and hard work by our team. The truth is, we’re doing well. We’re growing very fast. In Spain we can say that we have practically no competition where we have some 350 mental health professionals. In the United States it is a little more difficult to enter because there people prefer to treat themselves with medication to save money and time, it is another culture and it is always a little more complicated. We have more than 100 in America, and in the rest of the world more than 50. Every day we have some new client, in a very short time we have increased very quickly.
Some patients may be suspicious of such novel treatments based on the use of a technology they do not know. How would you convince them? What advantages do virtual reality-based treatments offer over other forms of psychotherapy?
Surprisingly, it’s the opposite. The first thing that transmits to them to see the glasses of Virtual Reality is motivation, curiosity, laughter, emotion… there are data that confirm that using this tool the patient has more facility at the time of beginning a therapy that with the imagination or in vivo. The fact of having the therapist makes patients feel safe. Even if their brain makes them believe at times that they are somewhere else, they know that in reality they are safe and protected. They are only exposed to a certain dose of anxiety, always modulated and controlled by the psychologist. The patients are motivated when it comes to being treated because most of them want to solve possible problems that do not allow them to live a full life.
Cognitive behavioral therapy in Virtual Reality is more realistic and therefore more effective than therapy through imagination (many people do not have enough imaginative capacity to treat themselves). On the other hand, VR is safer than in vivo exposure (real exposure) which is impractical for recurrent use. With Psious Toolsuite, the therapist can monitor the patient’s vitals through biofeedback and control their anxiety levels at all times to ensure that the treatment is accurate and ensures their well-being.
What kind of training do the people directly involved in the design and modelling of the virtual environments used in Psious have?
The design of the environments is carried out by psychologists, Virtual Reality designers create them and computer engineers upload them to the platform.
Today, how many “environments” or “scenarios” does the Psious catalogue have? At what pace do you plan to create new options?
Bearing in mind that for each specific phobia or exercise there is more than one environment, right now we have in our catalogue more than 30.
We’re going at a very good pace. Our production department is growing. Right now we’ve just launched the first social phobia environment.
What are the next goals to be achieved in the short and medium term?
In the short term, we want to continue growing in Spain, increasing the number of expert psychologists who treat using virtual reality and the number of patients treated with this technology. We want to position virtual reality as one of the most used tools in psychology and for this we need the collaboration of psychologists and professionals in the sector. In the medium to short term we want to extend the product to the entire American continent, from north to south, where we already have several professionals using us and we are generating a lot of interest.
In terms of product, we are continuously developing new virtual reality environments. Just a few days ago we launched environments to treat social phobia or to train and practice social skills.