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Fresh (virtual) air will do you good

The benefits — and stomach-twisting challenges — of nature in a headset

By Hannah Thomasy

Recently, I took a trip to the Hoh Rainforest in western Washington state, which I last visited with my parents as a child. It was much as I remembered it. The sun filtered delicately through the dense canopy, curtains of moss dripped from the tree branches, and the ground under my feet was covered with a thick carpet of ferns and leaf litter. Familiar birdsongs filled my ears. There was an undeniable sense of being somewhere else.

It was lovely but — I have to admit — a bit disorienting, and I was slightly dizzy when I took the virtual-reality headset off after seven minutes. This wasn’t a typical jaunt in the woods. I was accessing the Pacific Northwest wilderness via the VR short documentary “Sanctuaries of Silence” on the Within app.

A number of virtual-reality tours have popped up of late, noted for their ability to substitute for a pandemic-shrunk travel industry. But virtual outdoor experiences might have benefits beyond mere entertainment. A small but growing number of scientists believe that virtual experiences of nature—nausea notwithstanding—might actually be able to improve our well-being. In one study, researchers from Tampere University in Finland found that being immersed in a virtual-reality forest increased peoples’ working memory.

Time and time again, studies have shown that getting outside is remarkably beneficial for our physical and mental health. Spending time outdoors can boost our mood, lower blood pressure, and even improve cognition. While our day-to-day lives are full of quick distractions and taxed attention spans, “nature has the ability to captivate our attention in a way that allows our cognitive resources to restore,” says Matthew Browning, a researcher in the Virtual Reality and Nature Lab at Clemson University in South Carolina. “It also has the ability to reduce stress.”

If we can’t get outside — because of a pandemic, an injury, an illness, or inclement weather — scientists think we also can reap some of these benefits from virtual reality. But while the technology has come a long way, scientists trying to maximize its full potential must grapple with obstacles like motion sickness while creating a visceral sense of presence in an unreal world — complete with sounds, smells, and textures. Inherent in their work is a contradiction: If our lives have become too removed from the natural world, dominated by screens and technology, can the solution to that problem really come from another screen?

The idea that nature is good for us is not new. In 1973, Rachel Kaplan reported on the psychological benefits of gardening. In 1984, architect Roger Ulrich, who researched building design’s impact on health, found that surgical patients recovered faster when their windows faced a natural scene instead of a brick wall.

Scientifically, these past findings had limits. It’s very difficult to run controlled experiments outside of a lab, let alone recreate an outdoor environment in one. So researchers who wanted to measure physical and mental responses to nature had to make do with videos of nature instead of the real thing.

If our lives have become too removed from the natural world, can the solution to that problem really come from another screen?

But VR technology has improved leaps and bounds in the past decade, and researchers now have a wide variety of tools to more convincingly recreate outdoor environments: commercially available headsets from Samsung and Oculus, which range in price from $36 to $500; enterprise models like the Pico G2 4K, only available to businesses in North America. Many of Browning’s studies use video of natural locations taken with a Samsung Gear 360 camera, edited with Gear 360 ActionDirector, and Adobe Premiere Pro, and shown to participants on a 2015 Samsung Gear VR headset — all of which you can buy online.

For the most part, these VR studies focus on sight and sound, although one project out of Sweden also incorporated smells by using essential oils and other organic compounds. Those innovations have allowed researchers to bring the strictures of a lab environment to the question of why, exactly, the fresh air does us good.

And so far, empirically, it does — even in simulation. Findings from around the world indicate that VR nature exposure can increase positive emotions and even reduce heart rate and blood pressure. Researchers at Northeastern University’s Center for Cognitive and Brain Health have conducted studies exploring how cognitive function, which has been shown to improve with exercise, might be further enhanced in a simulated green space.

Nature VR can also help people recover from stressful experiences. In a 2018 study, researchers at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany intentionally stressed out their participants by making them perform public speaking and mental math. Subjects were then randomly sorted into three different groups. One experienced an underwater nature video in VR, another watched the same video on a regular monitor, and the control group was left alone in the room. Participants in the VR ocean group had greater reductions in anxiety and greater increases in heart rate variability (a measurement associated with relaxation) than both the desktop group and the control group. Interestingly, participants who simply watched the video on a desktop didn’t fare any better than the group left in an empty room.

VR can even be a useful tool to reduce pain, studies show. “Virtual reality is unlike any other audiovisual medium ever created,” says Brennan Spiegel, director of health services research at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. “It distracts the brain, and as a result, the brain is less capable of monitoring the physical experience of pain.”

So far, work by Spiegel and colleagues has shown that VR experiences, including nature scenes, guided meditation, and games, can reduce pain in hospitalized patients and even in women in labor. An upcoming study will investigate the use of VR at home for individuals with chronic back pain.

But while VR nature can approximate a lot of upsides of being outside, it’s still not the real thing. For example, Browning, the Clemson researcher, says that being in nature encourages other healthy behaviors, such as better sleep and increased physical activity. It may also build social support and cohesion. “Those would be very difficult to attain without being in a physical space,” he says.

That’s not the only shortcoming. “There is so much that [VR] misses,” says Giovanna Calogiuri, a professor of health sciences at the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, “like the feeling of the sun on your skin or breathing the fresh air.” While commercially available VR technology is excellent at mimicking the sights and sounds of nature, it’s much less able to stimulate other senses like smell and touch.

And my dizziness after my rainforest walk wasn’t an isolated experience. Calogiuri says that “cyber sickness,” a feeling akin to motion sickness, has also been a stubbornly persistent problem. About five to 10 percent of people experience transient cyber sickness when using VR, says Spiegel. Calogiuri thinks that has been a big factor stopping VR from really taking off; in 2017, she and her colleagues conducted a study that found that a real nature walk reduced participants’ negative feelings, while a virtual nature walk made people feel slightly worse, generally because of cyber sickness.

Improvements in VR technology have helped. Less shakiness in video capture, achieved through either improved stabilization of the camera or more sophisticated post-production software, has reduced cyber sickness, Calogiuri says. Other research has found that using VR for shorter periods of time, and techniques like “snapping” to new viewpoints instead of displaying continuous motion, also reduce cyber sickness.

There’s also the worry that the ease of nature delivered through a headset could make people less likely to experience the real thing. Some researchers have raised concerns that broad use of virtual reality could affect eye development or create false memories in children. But Calogiuri says the opposite is also possible — that virtual nature could spark curiosity in people who habitually stay indoors and inspire them to venture out.

In spite of its limitations, VR may be able to help us bring nature to people who might need its stress-reducing influence the most: people in hospitals, or nursing homes, or dense cities. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, many city dwellers were confined to their homes. Perhaps VR could make another shutdown more tolerable, and help restore us during a time when relaxing getaways are in short supply.

That was certainly true of my time in the Hoh rainforest. For a few minutes, VR let me escape the stress of work, the claustrophobia of my tiny apartment, the endless grey concrete of urban life, and get back to being a kid out in the woods again — even if I got a little lightheaded along the way.

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Hannah Thomasy is a writer based out of Toronto and Seattle.

Illustration by Tatjana Prenzel


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