The bridge suddenly ends at mid-span, and you're standing on the brink, staring down at the icy waters below. Your heart is racing, your palms are sweating. The sole consolation: the bridge exists only on a computer chip.
Welcome to virtual reality, until now, a technology in search of a purpose. Psychologist Ralph Lamson, Ph.D., of the Kaiser Permanente Medical Group, says it's just the thing to help acrophobes overcome their fear of heights.
Don the special helmet and the real world is replaced by a computer-generated universe. As you turn your head, the headgear senses the movement and alters the image accordingly. Turn the handgrip and you seem to move forward or backward, allowing you to tour this cyberworld at your own pace.
More than 60 patients (average age: 54) have explored the bridge in 40-minute sessions. They begin their travels in a cafe and gradually make their way to a raised wooden plank outside. To cross the plank, they must confront their phobia. Patients perceive the plank's height differently--some see it as 10 feet, some as 10 stories--but the experience can be dizzying, even if it isn't real.