AN Oxford psychiatrist has successfully developed a virtual reality (VR) treatment for fear of heights which has shown better results than the best face to face psychological intervention.

Professor Daniel Freeman, an Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust consultant psychiatrist used a VR programme in which psychological therapy is delivered to patients suffering from acrophobia via a computer-generated virtual coach, called 'Nic'.

Users were taken to a virutal 10-storey apartment block where they undertook a series of activities including crossing a rickety walkway and rescuing a cat from a tree in the building’s atrium.

After an average of two hours in VR over five treatment sessions all participants showed a reduction in fear of heights, with the average reduction being 68 per cent.

Prof Daniel Freeman,who is also a researcher the Oxford University's department of psychiatry said: "The results are extraordinarily good.

"We were confident the treatment would prove effective, but the outcomes exceeded our expectations."

He added: "Rigorous testing will be vital but it feels as though we may be looking at a big part of the future of mental health treatments.”

Although VR has been used in the past for phobias, it has always required a therapist to guide the user through the treatment.