YOU stand at the shore watching the waves, warmed by the rays of the setting sun. Paradise. But taking in the scenery isn’t just a pleasant way to kill time – studies have found it can help us focus and lower stress.
All well and good, but what if there is nowhere suitably scenic nearby? Robert Stone at the University of Birmingham, UK, is probing the use ofto achieve the same benefits.
Stone’s virtual environment is a recreation of the village of Wembury on the south coast of the UK. It was built using aerial photos and 3D topographical maps, then populated with trees and animals. The resulting scene takes 40 minutes to “walk” through, and its time of day can be synced to that in the real world.
Stone has asked 30 patients in a hospital intensive care unit to try it out, with the aim of seeing whether it aids their recovery. Hospital testers with moderate mobility wear a VR headset while strolling on an exercise machine as part of their rehabilitation; others simply watch a video of the simulation. The idea is to offer them a more stimulating environment and eliminate the boredom associated with rehab at present, he says. His team is now analysing the data.
Meanwhile,and Allison Anderson at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, have taken the same technology to the base at the north-eastern tip of Ellesmere Island – the most northerly inhabited point in the world.
By enrolling military personnel here and at other remote locations, they hope to test the system’s ability to alleviate feelings of isolation, relax people and sharpen their focus. “, visual and auditory break,” Anderson says. Each volunteer will take a 20-minute video wander through Virtual Wembury once a week, while recording their moods and feelings.
“We want to adapt this technology to the unique needs that astronauts might have“
The possibility of mental illness is always a concern when people are working far from home for long periods, particularly in a confined environment. Staff at CFS Alert can be based on Ellesmere for up to six months, with 24-hour darkness in winter and outdoor temperatures typically at -40° C.
“When you drive to the end of the runway here, you know you’re the northernmost person on the planet,” says Walter Michalchuk, who was one of the first CFS Alert volunteers to put Virtual Wembury to the test. “The second you step out the door and see nothing, and it’s completely dark, you feel very isolated.” He said the virtual reality helped him feel a lot better.
Hunter Hoffman at the University of Washington in Seattle says it’s “a fabulous application” of VR. Hoffman is taking a different tack, helping people manage phobias by letting them interact virtually with the thing they fear.
The next step is to take the technology to space, says Anderson. “We want to adapt this to the unique needs that astronauts might have.”
This article appeared in print under the headline “Virtual idyll to beat the isolation blues”
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