Future is now

US government developing virtual reality simulation for young gay men

A young man wearing virtual reality goggles

The National Institutes of Health is developing a virtual reality experience to help young gay men who’ve contracted HIV disclose their status to future sex partners.

“Tough Talks” allows users to practice what can be a difficult and necessary conversation — how to tell someone you may not know very well that you’re HIV-positive prior to having sex.

In the simulation, characters are able to exhibit and roleplay various emotional states like “anger, fear, rejection, blame, ignorance, curiosity, confusion, support, concern, sympathy, empathy, acceptance, [and] love.”

Users are able to practice several scenarios of communication with casual or primary sex partners.

The Georgia-based Tech training company Virtually Better, Inc., along with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies, are creating the simulation in the hopes of opening up pathways of communication.

According to the grant that led to developing the project, 67% of young gay men not adequately disclose their HIV status to first-time partners.

“Given the potential benefits and challenges associated with disclosure, there is a need for sophisticated interventions that can assist [men who have sex with men] MSM, with the disclosure process,” the grant reads. “Virtual reality provides a unique environment for users to practice HIV disclosure.”

Starting in 2014 under the Obama administration, researchers recruited young men through Craigslist, Grindr and Facebook.

The results of the study were published in July 2018 in a paper titled ‘I Didn’t Tell You Sooner Because I Didn’t Know How to Handle It Myself’ and look promising, with participants reporting the simulation helpful.

The project will continue through May 2020.