With us stuck at home for the foreseeable future, experts believe that experiencing nature in VR will be beneficial for our health.
It is well-established that spending time in nature brings with it a plethora of health benefits, from lowered anxiety and depression to reduced blood pressure and a stronger immune system. How nature induces these effects, however, remains unclear. Is it the physical exercise? The time spent away from screens? The awe of nature itself?
New research lends a hand to scientists’ understanding of how nature impacts our wellbeing. Published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, the study found that people who watched high-definition nature programs on TV or in virtual reality reported decreased levels of boredom and other negative emotions.
Researchers at the University of Exeter asked 96 participants to watch a video of a person describing their job at an office supply company. This, of course, was done in order to induce boredom (and potentially sadness).
The participants then watched or interacted with a nature program about a coral reef under one of three randomly assigned conditions: 2D video viewed on a high-definition TV screen, 360-degree VR, viewed via a head mounted display (HMD) and interactive computer-generated VR (CG-VR), also viewed via a HMD and interacted with using a hand-held controller.
Watching the nature program under all three conditions lowered negative affect, including boredom and sadness. The only group that actually experienced a boost in mood was the VR group. They also reported feelings of being more connected to nature.
“Our results show that simply watching nature on TV can help to lift people’s mood and combat boredom,” lead researcher Nicky Yeo told the University of Exeter News. “With people around the world facing limited access to outdoor environments because of COVID-19 quarantines, this study suggests that nature programmes might offer an accessible way for populations to benefit from a ‘dose’ of digital nature.”
Make no mistake; there is no comparison between the benefits of experiencing nature via TV or VR to experiencing it in person. In reality though, many are restricted to where they can go during the pandemic. But even beyond the pandemic, the findings suggest that experiencing nature through virtual reality could help people improve their mental wellbeing—a tool that could prove especially useful for people who don’t live near-natural environments.
“Virtual reality could help us to boost the wellbeing of people who can’t readily access the natural world, such as those in hospital or in long term care,” co-author Mathew White told the University of Exeter News. “But it might also help to encourage a deeper connection to nature in healthy populations, a mechanism which can foster more pro-environmental behaviours and prompt people to protect and preserve nature in the real world.”