Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-simulated environment you can usually both see and hear, accessible via VR glasses, for example. In some cases, the senses of smell and touch are also engaged. VR technology is rapidly evolving and becoming easier to use. It is not only used for entertainment and gaming or in simulators for educational purposes, but also in care and welfare. VR is especially important for groups that are unable, or find it difficult, to get out into the real world and into nature. VR can be accessed using glasses, screens or a dome with a gigantic 360-degree screen.
Virtual nature contributes to a positive mood and to recovery
Virtual nature improves mood and reduces stress amongst young adults and pensioners (Chan et al 2021). A VR film with wild Australian landscapes or urban nature with parks or gardens helps evoke a positive mood and boosts recovery better than a built-up area with minimal vegetation (McAllister et al 2017).
EEG measurements, blood pressure, skin conductance and pulse rate decreased as Chinese university students watched a VR film of bamboo forest (Wang et al 2020).
Some are concerned that virtual nature could replace actual nature (see, for example, Litlekare et al 2020), that we would rather sit inside wearing a pair of VR glasses than go outside for a visit into nature, or that in care and welfare, we might replace outdoor stays with VR. Some claim a virtual forest can be as restorative as a real forest (Mattilla et al 2020). However, there are also studies that show that actual nature has a better effect than VR on mood (Browning et al 2020).
Difference between physiological measurements and self-assessment
It is interesting to note that blood pressure and pulse rate decrease in both the virtual forest and the urban environment, but in terms of psychological response, the virtual forest contributes to recovery while the urban environment contributes to exhaustion in relatively young people (Yu et al 2018). Another study shows that the physiological parameters do not change, regardless of the virtual environment, whereas psychological measurements show recovery in the nature environment in middle-aged and older people (Yu et al 2020). Even a double-blind, randomised controlled study shows that VR nature has a positive effect on perceived stress and recovery, but no effect on heart variability (Blum et al 2019). This means that there is a difference between physiological data that cannot be influenced and psychological self-assessed data. Is it possible that we overestimate the efficacy of VR nature, or is it the case that the VR films are too short to impact physiological parameters such as heart variability, pulse rate and blood pressure? Most studies use VR films of 5–15 minutes duration (Syed Abdullah et al 2021).
Sound and scent
A VR environment with sound is better at reducing stress than an environment with only one image (Annerstedt et al 2013). Virtual scent is more important than both vision and sound (Hedblom et al 2019).
Care and welfare
VR can be used as a substitute for actual nature for people who cannot go outside (Litlekare et al 2020). The technology can also be used to reconnect with nature and to enhance the experience of nature. Cancer patients in palliative care (who cannot go outside) feel better in the short term after watching VR films showing natural, restful environments, such as oceans, parks, waterfalls, mountain landscapes, even London Bridge (Moscato et al 2021). Amongst other things, they experience less pain and anxiety. Cancer patients who access VR whilst undergoing chemotherapy become relaxed and distracted, but pain and stress are not reduced (Scates et al 2020). People with dementia become more content and alert by watching a virtual forest (Moyle et al 2018). One review study shows that virtual forest therapy in various forms has a positive effect and reduces stress (Syed Abdullah et al 2021).
/Text: Ann Dolling
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