A new remedy for depression might be as simple as picking up a smartphone and going for a walk through augmented reality.
That’s the idea behind an app being designed by three University of Central Florida doctoral students in UCF’s Department of Psychology.
The idea is good enough that it has landed the students — Catrina Calub, Brittany Stevenson and Brandon Matsumiya — a place as finalists in Florida Blue’s Healthcare Innovation Competition. They will compete against 11 other Florida teams Wednesday at the GuideWell Innovation Center in Orlando’s Lake Nona Medical City for prizes that include a first-place award of $10,000.
“The basic premise behind it is a therapeutic technique called behavioral activation,” Matsumiya said. “With many people with depression, they’ve stopped doing things that they used to love doing, they withdraw physically from the world. So the idea with the app is for them to start re-engaging with the world.”
With the app, users could visit preset locations that are likely to elevate moods, such as coffee shops, national parks, springs or an arboretum. While there, users could earn virtual coins as the app senses their presence through GPS tracking. As a result, they would not only be visiting the place in real life, but also through the virtual world of the app. The overlay of the virtual onto real life would create an augmented reality. The coins that users earn from visiting locations would allow them to “purchase” gear to customize their avatar, their digital identity in the app. They also could socialize with others through the app.
The app, which is still in the development stage, would also allow users to access resources to help with depression and search for mental-health providers.
Calub said one of the goals of the app is to eliminate barriers people may have for getting help for depression.
“So whether that barrier be cost or whether that barrier be stigma about getting treatment, I think that our app helps circumvent those kinds of problems by making it more accessible and less stigmatizing,” she said. “It’s not this scary office but actually something that’s in the palm of your hand that looks like a game.”
The students said the app could be useful for people with levels of depression ranging from mild to severe. And users don’t have to be just people who are suffering from depression, Stevenson said.
“It’s also just for people who maybe want to prevent a depressive episode or just want to be more active,” she said.
The students said they are excited to have entered the final rounds of competition and that their idea was good enough to be selected.
“It feels really purposeful,” Stevenson said.
The app would be novel because of the game and interactive elements it would offer. While similar apps exist, none offers the game rewards for completing aspects of the app or the social connectivity, Calub said.
“Other apps, they just create a schedule and you say you did it,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is make it a lot more interactive and engaging.”
The game aspects of being rewarded for visiting locations tap into people’s need for immediate feedback, Matsumiya said.
This immediate feedback is not something that is always available after a therapy session for depression, Calub said.
“With this game we’re trying to provide immediate feedback right away, which we know from decades of research that it is a lot more effective than delayed reinforcement,” she said.