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Sydney tech startup Totem Labs is virtually bringing people’s very worst fears to life


Sydney company Totem Labs has developed technology to treat people’s deepest fears and phobias through the use of virtual reality (VR) and 360 degree filming.

Deputy Premier and Minister for Skills John Barilaro said Totem Labs received a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) grant from the private-sector led, NSW Government backed Jobs for NSW to develop the VR technology for The Sydney Phobia Clinic which is expanding across Australia.

“It’s estimated that 6-12 per cent of people suffer from anxiety related to a specific phobia, so it is important that people know they can be treated to reduce the impact on their lives, which in some cases can be severe,” Mr Barilaro said.

“Totem Labs uses cutting edge VR technology to expose patients in a gradual way to their phobia – whether it be spiders, snakes, heights, a fear of flying or otherwise – to help them overcome their fear.

“The NSW Government is supporting this innovative company, which was founded by psychology graduate Pieter Rossouw, to grow a new niche industry for the state’s economy.”

What is the story behind Totem Labs?

Mr Rossouw, who is also a co-founder of the Sydney Phobia Clinic, said Totem Labs had recently created experiences for phobias including needles, dentists, MRI machines, vomiting, snakes and birds to add to common fears such as dogs and insects.

“The idea for the company came when I met my co-founder Corrie Ackland who told me there was a gap in the treatment of phobias between trying to picture things in your imagination and actually being in that scenario,” he said.

“I have had an interest in VR since I was a kid and now that it’s finally mainstream and affordable. This is one of the quintessential problems VR can solve, so with Corrie’s help I started building prototypes.

“We used Totem Labs as a development house for the VR experiences and we use the technology in a clinical setting in Sydney Phobia clinic.”

Mr Rossouw said the Jobs for NSW grant allowed the company to engage a programmer and an animator to develop their initial VR content.

“It was extremely helpful as it was one of the few grants we were eligible for. We have now grown 50 per cent every month for the past five months and have just hired two new therapists.