Virtual Nature is a PhD project exploring how digital experiences of the natural world can impact health and wellbeing. Led by Alex Smalley, it is investigating how nature, culture and technology can combine to enhance psychological health.
Research has shown that spending time in natural environments can boost physical and mental health. For many people however—such as those in long term care, with a physical disability or in densely urban areas—regular contact with nature can be difficult to achieve.
New advances in virtual reality technology provide an opportunity to overcome these barriers, bringing ‘nature’ to people who cannot otherwise access it. This study is examining how people feel about these experiences, how they affect wellbeing, and how they might be used in real-world situations.
Full project details can be found at virtual-nature.com.
Using digital tools to explore the psychology of nature-based experiences is not new; researchers have used photographs, video and audio to replicate contact with ‘real’ nature for several decades.
These studies have helped to examine the physical and psychological effects of contact with the natural world, and allowed scientists to build theories about how and why spending time in these environments can affect mental wellbeing.
Now, new breakthroughs in the field of virtual reality have provided an exciting opportunity to go further. Developments in 360 cameras, digital rendering, audio recording, head-mounted displays, and mobile applications allow us to immerse people in spaces and places like never before.
This opportunity to bring realistic nature-based experiences to those who cannot readily access them opens up new possibilities for therapeutic interventions. But we currently know very little about whether this kind of approach can be used to boost wellbeing, and if so, how best to create, optimise and deliver it.
Starting with sound
In the push to maximise recent advances in VR technology, developers and researchers have tended to focus on immersive visual experiences. Yet we know that the sounds of nature also have the potential to improve people’s wellbeing, and that the sonic environment of the natural world is preferred to listening to other kinds of sounds.
However, so far there hasn’t been a systematic attempt to unpick how audio can be used in virtual reality to create a restorative nature-based experience.
To address this gap in knowledge, we’ve partnered with the BBC to launch the Forest 404 Experiment, one of the biggest soundscape studies ever conducted. We’re asking the UK public to help us collect data and chart people’s responses to a variety of natural sounds and nature-based poetry.
You can take part in the experiment and learn more about the Forest 404 drama by visiting bbc.co.uk/forest.
The outcomes of this experiment will give us a unique insight into how the sounds of nature might influence psychological wellbeing. We will be able to measure the importance of people’s life experience, and make judgements about what kind of sounds might work best in virtual reality.
The next steps will be to test these findings in more detail, using them in virtual reality to learn how and why people respond differently.