All I can see in every direction is black smoke, with intermittent darts of flame. And all I hear is gunfire, mortar rounds and the rumbling engine of the fortified tank I'm driving to Falluja.

'm inside a virtual-reality simulation of a war zone in Iraq. High-resolution goggles cover my eyes and headphones cover my ears.

Seated next to me, tapping out commands on a controller, is Dr. Albert "Skip" Rizzo, a cognitive psychologist and virtual therapy developer with the Institute for Creative Technologies.

At this University of Southern California think tank, Hollywood special-effects pros and game developers come together to develop new immersive simulation technologies for the military. Most are used as training tools, but this time, the goal is to help combatants cope with the personal psychological effects of war in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

After a few minutes of increasingly intense activity, my heart speeds up, my breathing becomes more shallow, my palms become warmer -- and I'm really, really ready to stop the sim.

"This is not a self-help tool, and it's not something you download yourself off the internet," said Rizzo, when I'm finally allowed to remove the headgear. "Everything you experienced is a function of us turning knobs and pulling switches. If we noticed your heart rate was too fast, we'd pull back on things."

But in real war, you don't get to take off the goggles.

Developed in 2004 by the Institute for Creative Technologies with the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the VR therapy project has code roots in Full Spectrum Warrior, a first-person shooter originally developed as a tactical training tool for the Army. It was released as a commercial product for Xbox and PC in 2004.

Using the control tablet Rizzo calls the "Wizard of Oz" box, a clinician can select any number of environments -- urban war zone, deserted highway, crowded bazaar -- depending on where a patient's initial trauma event occurred.

The control interface can add or silence the sound of gunshots, or flood an area with blasts and smoke. Stress-inducing factors can be increased or decreased, depending on patients' physiological reactions -- and how they say they are doing.

"We're going to integrate a smell machine, to bring people back to places they've been before," said Rizzo. "We're building a collection. We already have burning rubber, diesel fuel, body odor, garbage and Iraqi spices."

Virtual-reality therapies have been used by some mental health providers since the 1990s to treat phobias. The idea of using it to treat PTSD has a predecessor in Virtual Vietnam, a project conducted by Georgia Tech University researchers in 1997 with a group of Vietnam veterans.

"But never before have we applied it this early," said Cmdr. Russell Shilling, the Office of Naval Research program officer credited with initiating the current project.

"When VR therapy was used with Vietnam veterans, it was applied more than 20 years later," said Shilling. "Here, we're trying to catch people right as they come home, and eventually we'd like to apply it while they're still in the theater."

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