Virtual Nature is a 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 digital 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.
The first part of this research partnered with the BBC to create Forest 404, a groundbreaking podcast series and experiment examining reactions to natural soundscapes. Over 7,600 people took part in the study, and the wider project won several broadcast awards for its novel transdisciplinary approach. More details on the series can be found at bbc.co.uk/forest and an overview of the academic component can be found at virtual-nature.com/forest.
The second focus of the project was on the importance of fleeting and personal experiences in nature. Over 3,000 people responded to an online experiment exploring the restorative potential of ‘memorable moments’ such as sunsets, rainbows and storms. Alex used the latest digital techniques to create these scenes, which can be viewed at virtual-nature.com/ephemeral-phenomena.
The third part of this research is currently in development. It is an exciting new collaboration with BBC Music, bringing together the findings from stages one and two in an experiment designed to probe emotional reactions to several rich digital nature experiences. More details will be available in January 2021, when the project launches.
The outcomes of this work will also feed into therapeutic interventions designed to reach those who cannot access ‘real’ natural environments.
A first example of this impact was Mindful Escapes, a unique collaborative series between BBC Four and Headspace. Alex was scientific consultant on this series, helping to underpin the programme with the latest academic findings.