SFU researchers create virtual reality experience to help astronauts manage loneliness in space

Earthgazing can also be used to combat COVID-19 related isolation and loneliness

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Shot of Earth from space
PHOTO: Courtesy of iSpace Lab

By: Yelin Gemma Lee, News Writer 

SFU School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) professor Dr. Bernhard Riecke and his team of researchers created an earthgazing virtual reality (VR) experience to combat loneliness felt by astronauts on long journeys in space. The Peak interviewed Katerina Stepanova, a PhD student at SIAT and research team member to find out more.

Stepanova discussed the effect of space travel on mental health. “Missions to Mars will take eight months [ . . . ] and that’s obviously a very long time to live in a confined space with a small group of other people,” explained Stepanova. “Our experiment is trying to see whether we can use virtual reality in order to counteract some of those negative psychological effects.” 

She said this research builds off previous work which focused on “how virtual reality can provide different positive transformative experiences for people, how it can support their mental well-being.”

According to Stepanova, the project aimed to recreate feelings similar to the overview effect, a phenomenon astronauts experience when they’re observing Earth from outer space. Astronauts experience a powerful emotional shift in awareness when they look at Earth from the outside. 

“They realize how incredibly beautiful it is, but at the same time, how fragile it is, and how we’re all united as living beings on this planet.” 

This experiment and 70 others from research labs around the world are currently underway in a Scientific International Research in Unique Terrestrial Station (SIRIUS) study. SIRIUS simulates the conditions of a spacecraft — including isolation from Earth — for eight months. Scenes of scenery of Earth are shown to those participating in the study to test whether this can help with feelings of isolation in space.

Earthgazing VR experience in the SIRIUS study takes inspiration from other self-transcendent phenomena besides the overview effect such as “meditation, witnessing vast nature, awe-inspiring aurora, and solar eclipse.” 

She explained this experience could also be useful in helping people through isolation and limited travel due to COVID-19. Stepanova believes VR transcendent experiences can make world famous naturescapes like the Grand Canyon more accessible to all.

“The study that we’re doing in Moscow is designed for supporting space exploration [ . . . ] but generally, we’re hoping to be helpful to anyone who may be experiencing some isolation,” said Stepanova. “With COVID-19 happening in the last two years [ . . . ] those transcendent experiences have not been as accessible to us. Overall, this would clearly be the most useful for people who don’t have regular access to experiencing something quite inspiring.” 

Stepanova travelled to Moscow with the iSpace lab in September 2021 to set up the system and train the crew to perform the experiment on themselves. At the end of the study in Summer 2022, the research lab will travel to Moscow again to collect results and learn about the crew’s experience of Earthgazing VR. This project is funded by the European Space Agency and the German Space Agency.

Those interested in updates to this SIRIUS study and iSpace’s other projects can visit their website.