As a gamer, I've been through many virtual-reality crack houses in my time, usually with guns blazing. Duke University professor Zach Rosenthal, however, has an entirely different way of dealing with crackheads in virtual reality - curing them.
"What we're trying to do is take people into a virtual crack-related neighbourhood or crack-related setting and have them experience cravings, just like they would in the real world," Rosenthal said.
Therapists then wait for the cravings to subside and associate it with a trigger such as a specific sound, conditioning the addicts to associate said sound with the cessation of cravings. The idea is that when the addict encounters real-world sensations they can call a phone number to hear the tone, and the cravings go away. It's all a form of classical conditioning, a phenomenon first explored by Ivan Petrovich Pavlov. Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate when a sound occurred, commonly believed to be the ringing of a bell. By ringing the bell before feeding the animal it began to associate the bell with the anticipation of food.
The main difference here is the use of virtual reality to provide the stimulus, rather than actually putting crack cocaine on a table and hitting the addicts with rolled-up newspaper whenever they reach for it. "Bad crackhead!"
While the program has had some success, Rosenthal doesn't see his work as merely a way to help addicts recover their lives.
"This isn't about cocaine, and this isn't really about substance use," He said. "This is about creating new learning and extending that learning to the real world."