You know that feeling you get when you’re homesick? That longing feeling in your gut when you miss the people you know and the places you like? If you think that’s bad, imagine being 200 miles above Earth, crammed into a small, apartment-sized room, being forced to see the same handful of people for weeks or even months on end. It’s easy to see why issues would crop up, even for the most well-adjusted.
That’s why researchers from Dartmouth and the University of Birmingham are developing virtual reality experiences for astronauts to use while on deep-space missions. The mental health issues resulting from isolation astronauts experience is a big concern, and a virtual escape to the countryside and other scenes of "natural beauty," as the researchers describe them, could offer some relief.
“Astronauts are highly functioning and highly-capable adults,” Jay Buckey, a professor of medicine at Dartmouth and former astronaut who flew on space flight STS-90 in 1998, told me. “It’s not like people don’t understand how to get along or anything. Being in an environment like that where you’re in a small, confined space with a very small group of people means that challenges are just going to inevitably arise.”
The project, which started last week, is being tested on the closest thing to isolated astronauts you can find on Earth: the residents of Canadian Forces Station Alert (CFS Alert), which is in the northernmost area of inhabited life on the planet, just a few hundred kilometers from the North Pole. "The sun doesn't really come up at CFS Alert during the winter and there aren’t exactly opportunities to do things like going for a walk at the park while you’re there,” Buckey said.
Dartmouth College's Digital Arts Leadership and Innovation lab, or DALI, has already developed things like depression and stress management programs in virtual reality with help from NASA. So for this project, the research teams at Dartmouth and Birmingham are focusing on using virtual reality to reconnect astronauts to nature. They hope to find out which virtual reality scenarios work best, and why.
“There is a certain plausibility to the idea that we have an inherent connection to nature,” Buckey said. “Just look at the lengths people go through to preserve and experience nature. Natural parks, zoos, hiking, safari excursions. All of those natural experiences are really prized so we want to get to the core of what makes them so popular.”
The project is split into two fundamental parts: one focused using virtual reality and 360-degree video, and one focused on recreating picturesque landscapes from Australia and Ireland in virtual reality using 3D graphics.
The 360-video project is led by Buckey, while the 3D graphics part of the project (like Virtual Wembury, which you can see in the video above) is led by Robert Stone, director of the human interface technologies team at University of Birmingham. Both teams are working under the same fundamental premise of allowing astronauts to reconnect with nature as a therapeutic exercise.
Once crewmembers at CFS Alert view a scene, they're asked to rate it for factors such as realism, immersion, and its calming effects. They'll also be monitored for stress and anxiety levels, sleeping patterns, heart rate, skin conductance, and more. The project is still in its early stages, but crewmembers are expected to try a wide variety of scenes over the course of several weeks.
“We use VR reconstructions because we can have full control over lighting, seasonal and weather effects, we can add or remove items as required,” Stone said. “We can also use embedded software to 'track' the end user—where he or she moves, dwells, looks, or what he or she interacts with.”
Stone said that with current technology that offers full head-tracking, high definition displays, higher framerates, a wide field of vision, and much more, virtual reality is better than ever, but can it actually trick astronauts into thinking they're somewhere they're not?
“With current levels of technology, no,” said Stone. “I have seen many virtual reality head-mounted displays and enclosure-based display systems come and go and not one of them deliver what I would consider to be a genuinely 'immersive' experience, such that the end user actually feels present within an alternative reality. The technology is simply not that capable at the moment.”
This assessment doesn’t necessarily mean the technology isn’t worth investing in, just that it isn’t quite capable of literally fooling you into thinking you’re somewhere else. The bright side to that, as Stone explains it, is that also means there is no reason to be concerned about virtual reality addiction or dependence.
Buckey and Stone also still don’t know how the known-risks of virtual reality, such as eye-strain and motion sickness, will impact astronauts in zero-gravity. Would it amplify the effects and make disorientation worse, or would the absence of gravity merely negate the effects of virtual reality motion sickness? Hopefully by the time humans start exploring the far reaches of space, virtual reality can figure out the best way to let astronauts take a long walk on the beach by simply putting on a head-mounted display.