We are part of the nature and life on Earth. As a biological unit, we need certain conditions to survive physically and mentally. Scientists are still working out on the technical perspective, but so far all the evidence proves that seeing trees, sunlight, mountains, see and other parts of our natural environment is good for our mental health and helps to improve it.
As humanity’s ambitions to send astronauts to Mars in the next two decades grow closer to reality, the challenges of maintaining the mental well-being and cognitive functioning of astronauts during extended space missions are receiving increased attention. At the Space Health Innovation Conference, NASA stakeholders and experts gathered to discuss the potential role of augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) in addressing these vital concerns.
Astronauts embarking on the arduous journey to Mars will face not only physical challenges but also psychological stress due to the confinement and isolation they will experience during the long trip. Jennifer Fogarty, chief scientist at the NASA Human Research Program, highlighted the importance of finding solutions to mitigate this stress. She pointed out that AR and VR technologies could provide a means for astronauts to escape from the tight quarters and alleviate tensions that may arise among crew members.
“Isolation and confinement,” Fogarty emphasized, “requires sensory enrichment. VR and AR technologies may offer a way to provide meaningful enrichment for astronauts. Conflict resolution is another aspect that can benefit from these technologies, allowing crew members to take a step back and cool off during disagreements.”
Beyond addressing psychological stress, the monotonous and drab environment inside the spacecraft also poses a concern. Kristin Fabre, senior innovation scientist, suggested that perhaps more immersive and visually stimulating environments are needed to keep astronauts safe and sane during the lengthy journey to Mars. She highlighted the need to move beyond the current space station design, characterized by monotone colors and equipment clutter.
These emerging technologies, however, are not limited to managing astronauts’ emotional well-being. Stakeholders have proposed that AR and VR tools could be leveraged to enhance astronauts’ higher-level cognitive functions. Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a leading expert in digital therapeutics and the executive director of the University of California, San Francisco’s Neuroscape lab, is exploring the combination of rhythm and VR in a game designed to stimulate brain activity.
“Our hypothesis is that by enhancing rhythmic abilities, we can improve various aspects of brain function. Our brains rely on anticipation and precise timing, which are fundamental to rhythms,” Dr. Gazzaley explained. “As astronauts engage with this closed-loop video game, the software continuously records their precision, accuracy, and consistency in real-time, adjusting the rhythms accordingly.”
While these technologies have been tested on Earth, Dr. Gazzaley believes they have the potential to be effectively implemented during space travel, offering astronauts a way to maintain and even enhance their cognitive abilities.
Moreover, the importance of considering the physiological impact of long-term space travel is evident. Kristin Fabre emphasized the need to understand how radiation affects cognitive and behavioral function as well as immune function. She added, “When we evaluate these technologies for assessing cognitive and behavioral well-being, we should also incorporate a physiological element to monitor and diagnose what is happening on the physiological level.”
Back in 2016 In the quest for sending humans to Mars and beyond and keep their sanity intact, former astronaut Jay Buckey is exploring a unique solution that involves virtual reality. Buckey and his team at Dartmouth have initiated a groundbreaking experiment to determine if exposure to nature through virtual reality can alleviate stress and improve the mood of astronauts during their long missions.
“The more tools you can give people to maintain a good psychological state, the more successful the mission is likely to be,” Buckey emphasized. To put this theory to the test, his team has dispatched Oculus Rift headsets to a challenging environment: the Canadian Forces Station Alert, located 500 miles from the North Pole, which is known for its perpetual darkness and harsh weather conditions.
The experiment involves two categories of virtual scenarios. The first provides a 360-degree view of real-world environments, such as beaches or picturesque landscapes. Although the views are highly realistic, users can only observe the environment from a fixed location. In contrast, the second scenario, “Virtual Wembury,” is a computer-generated simulation of a seaside town in the UK. Users can freely explore this virtual world.
The team aims to assess which type of environment users prefer and how it affects their mood and stress levels. The experiment is set to run until March, after which Buckey’s team hopes to expand the trial to the International Space Station.
The benefits of this technology are not limited to space exploration alone. Virtual green spaces like Virtual Wembury are being explored in the context of helping patients recover in UK Intensive Care Units. Furthermore, it holds potential for enhancing the well-being of the elderly and individuals with limited mobility, offering a refreshing and immersive experience for those who may struggle to access the natural world due to various constraints.
In a recent announcement, on 5 November launch date to the International Space Station, XRHealth’s immerisve healthcare solution will set course for the stars with HTC Vive and Nord- Space Aps. Astronauts embarking on lengthy missions in space often grapple with the mental health effects of isolation and highly stressful environments. To combat these issues, HTC VIVE will adapt its VIVE Focus 3 headsets to microgravity conditions, allowing astronauts to utilize these devices for mental health support during their missions.
Nord Space’s virtual reality mental health (VRMH) tools will play a pivotal role in this partnership, enabling astronauts to address their specific mental health needs while in orbit. The use of VRMH tools has the potential to enhance astronauts’ mental well-being, ultimately leading to more efficient and successful space missions.
While the full impact of virtual nature on mental health is yet to be determined, it is clear that innovative solutions like these are critical for addressing the psychological challenges of long-duration space travel and could have broader applications in improving mental well-being right here on Earth.
In conclusion, the use of AR and VR technologies in space missions is not only about improving mental health and emotional stability but also enhancing astronauts’ cognitive abilities and monitoring their physiological well-being. As we advance toward the goal of sending humans to Mars, these innovative solutions could play a pivotal role in ensuring the success and safety of such missions.