Virtual reality can fight isolation on Earth and in space

Space travel is on the horizon, with long journeys and new challenges to contend with. Image via Shutterstock / Conversations.

Katerina Stepanova, Simon Fraser University

It takes seven months to reach Mars in an efficiently designed spacecraft that covers the distance of almost 300 million miles (480 million km). On this journey, a crew had to survive in a confined space without the opportunity to experience nature or interact with new people. It is easy to imagine how this very isolation can have a serious impact on the well-being and productivity of the crew. But virtual reality can help alleviate some of the negative feelings of isolation, which has potential consequences for space travel.

Fighting loneliness

The challenges that long-distance space travelers experience are not foreign to ordinary people, but to a lesser extent. Many Canadians experience isolation and loneliness, at least occasionally.

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The loneliness epidemic could be remedied by an unlikely marriage between space exploration, virtual reality (VR) and the science of self-transcendent experiences.

COVID-19 lockdowns have created an environment for the largest isolation study in research history. Home booking has prevented us from meeting other people and experiencing nature, which has increased the number of loneliness and depression.

Feeling lonely and isolated has a wide range of negative consequences for our well-being, physical and cognitive health. The feeling of attachment is crucial for a happy, healthy and meaningful life.

Simulated isolation

Given the risks associated with isolation, space agencies conduct large-scale simulation studies to investigate and mitigate these effects. SIRIUS (Scientific International Research in Unique Terrestrial Station) is a series of isolation experiments on land that simulate long-term spaceflight.

It is safer and cheaper to perform simulations on land to assess the effects of isolation on the crew. This also allows space agencies to test the effectiveness of potential solutions that can support the crew’s physical and mental health during a lengthy space flight, such as a trip to Mars.

Virtual reality: Huge laboratory with large, connected cylindrical and rectangular modules.

The Nezemnyy Eksperimental’nyy Complex (NEK) facility in Moscow is modeled on the interior of a spacecraft. The SIRIUS-21 crew will stay in this room for 240 days. Image via iSpace Lab / The Conversation.

SIRIUS-21 is an eight-month isolation study in Moscow beginning on November 4, 2021. A multinational crew of six people will enter a special facility called NEK, which models a spacecraft built in the 1960s, and stay in there. for 240 days, participation in 70 experiments prepared by international research teams.

To explore the possibilities of supporting future astronauts on their extraplanetary journeys, iSpace Lab at Simon Fraser University collaborated with a research team at the Universitätsmedizin Charité in Berlin to create a VR experience designed to evoke feelings of connection.

Experiences beyond the self

Self-transcending experiences are a cluster of phenomena and associated emotional states, characterized by an increased sense of interconnectedness with the world. Awe is a special form of self-transcendence that can be experienced when witnessing something greater than oneself, such as standing on a mountaintop, impressed by the breadth of a landscape beyond its horizon, or witnessing a clear starry night. Awe not only supports our well-being but also makes us more compassionate and pro-social and even improves our physical health.

Although we find awe in many experiences in nature, spiritual practices, and culture, it sometimes takes one to travel to an awe-inspiring place, like the Grand Canyon, to be experienced. Living in isolation inevitably limits our opportunities to experience awe.

Virtual reality can evoke positive emotions

My PhD research explores the potential of immersive technologies like VR to evoke feelings of connection and support well-being. Together with my colleagues at iSpaceLab, we produced a 30-minute narrated Earthgazing VR experience where participants are immersed in a nature scene.

Throughout the journey, they experience: cloud viewers, watching a sunset over a gorge in the company of wild animals, observing the northern lights in the night sky, watching Mars rise above the horizon and flying through space across a solar eclipse. Finally, the participants revolve around the Earth and reflect on the connection between all life on our planet. This virtual journey is inspired by the Overview Effect, a deep experience that astronauts get when they see the Earth’s beauty and fragility from outer space.

A digitally rendered wilderness with trees, a red deer and distant mountains in sunset light.

A screenshot of the sunset scene in the Earthgazing VR experience. Image via iSpace Lab / The Conversation.

We get the opportunity to study the response to our Earthgazing VR experience in Moscow. The SIRIUS-21 crew will experience this VR experience throughout their mission, and they will record its effects on their physical and mental health, stress levels, emotional state, and sense of connection.

Next summer, our research team will gather additional information as the crew emerges and learn more about our designed VR experience and its potential for space flight.

The Power of Virtual Reality

Our VR experience can be beneficial in mitigating the effects of isolation. VR, although often presented as an isolating technology, has been explored as a tool to evoke connections. There is a growing interest and creative experimentation in how immersive technology can bring positive experiences that could connect us instead of locking us into our individual separate realities.

In our laboratory, we observed that VR experiences of flying around the Earth can result in experiences of awe (observed in visible goosebumps on participants’ arms), as well as subjective descriptions of awe, connection, and perspective change.

Researchers at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan also reported that awe-inspiring landscapes with mountains and waterfalls experienced in VR produce a statistically significant increase in positive emotions. VR could also promote social self-transcendent emotions, such as a virtual meditation experience that invites two users to synchronize their breathing and brain waves with each other, which promotes compassion.

Another recent study explored the potential of a psychedelic-inspired VR journey to evoke self-transcending experience qualities, including an increased level of connectedness.

Virtual reality is a possible solution

This growing body of research reflects VR’s promise to help mitigate the negative effects of isolation. Of course, there are other ways to experience connection than wearing a VR headset, such as going for a walk in nature or spending quality time with friends. But in the absence of these possibilities, VR could provide a necessary boost of self-transcending emotions.

Katerina Stepanova, Ph.D. Graduate and lecturer in interactive art and technology, Simon Fraser University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bottom line: Stay-at-home and quarantine orders have led to increasing isolation. Virtual reality can help alleviate some of the negative feelings of isolation, and it has potential consequences for space travel.

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