While many debate whether virtual reality is addictive, China is trying to use it to cure addiction.

In Shanghai and Hangzhou, drug rehabilitation centers have been hoping that virtual reality can help patients get rid of addiction by making them want drugs -- then confronting them with their damaging effects.

The system will first trigger drug cravings by immersing them in scenes that they’re familiar with, like drug users gathering in a room, or the sound of drugs burning in a pipe. That’s quickly followed by videos of police busting down the door -- and more disgusting scenes, like rotten teeth or maggots gnawing on skin.

“There’s a short period of weakness after a person’s memory is woken up,” the project manager of Seventh Technology, one of the VR system suppliers, said in a video report in May, “and we hit them with repulse in that brief window of time.”

The treatment then ends with heartwarming scenes of peaceful family life.

The headsets can track eye movement as well as an electrocardiograph system. Together it records a person’s reaction, and can allegedly measure how much they’re still craving drugs.

VR drug rehabilitation system maker Seventh Technology says that the system gives them more accurate data to personalize rehab programs. (Picture: thepaper.cn)

The system was first developed and tested in the eastern province of Zhejiang by the local anti-drug authorities and Seventh Technology, and was put in use in four drug rehabilitation centers in the province last year. In Shanghai, three drug rehab centers have been using a similar system.

Local authorities say that the system has now been used by tens of thousand of patients since it was first introduced in early 2017. Seventh Technology said in May that 73% of users showed reduced drug cravings after using the system for a month, but no one has completed the full treatment and been discharged from the centers.