Rosenthal's research employs a methodology called virtual reality cue reactivity. Put simply, that means using virtual reality to trigger a reaction, then to monitor that reaction. In substance abuse treatment, that usually involves transporting addicts to a software artist's representation of a drug den or party and teaching them to deal with the situation.
In decades past, researchers would try to treat smokers and alcoholics using real-life triggers. Show the addicts a lighter or an empty bottle, or even a photograph of something associated with smoking and drinking, to trigger cravings, then teach them coping strategies. It seemed to work, to some degree, but it was limited. Patients, after all, could tell they were in a lab, and they might not be able to transfer the coping mechanisms to an outside environment.
That's where virtual reality comes in. It's still only an approximation of reality, but researchers believe it has some advantages over earlier forms of treatment. For one, the immersiveness of the environment--a created world, in which almost anything can be a trigger--helps patients better transfer what they learned in the lab to the real world, researchers say.
For another thing, the environments and triggers are minutely customizable. A smoker who always stood outside a coffee shop with a cup of joe can have that coffee shop and black coffee recreated. An addict describes his history of drug use and artists render it. So an alcoholic might approach a bar and ask for a Budweiser in a can--and get exactly that, reproduced right down to the label. Some teams are even capable of simulating smells, like cigarette smoke. At least one study found smokers were more likely to quit when given the virtual reality treatment.