Expeditioners at Australia’s Antarctic stations are using virtual reality to help them cope during months of isolation — and the research could be used for astronauts going to Mars.
The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) is collaborating with Dartmouth University to understand how virtual reality can help with mental health.
AAD Chief Medical Officer Dr Jeff Ayton said a mission to Antarctica is similar to a space mission.
“Antarctica is an isolated, confined, extreme environment and we have some of the longest confinement on earth,” he said.
“It’s up to nine months at Mawson Station before we can get people out and the Australian expeditioners are suffering real isolation and hazardous conditions.”
Dr Ayton said the Virtual Space Station project is being used to help with mental health.
“The virtual reality scenes they’re looking at are Australian beach scenes, European nature scenes and North American nature scenes of forests and urban environments,” he said.
“That’s there to bring them back to reality, to give them a sense of being in a virtual space that is different from the isolation of the whiteness and silence of Antarctica.”
The headsets are helping researchers “visit” beaches and forests. (Supplied: Australian Antarctic Division)
He said the program would help inform researchers at Dartmouth College who could use it for a long-term mission to Mars.
“There are other modules of the program looking at conflict management, stress and mood that they can also access offline and help them through the isolation of winter in Antarctica,” he said.
“If we can just help one person or one team or one station down south to get through the isolation and confinement of Antarctica over winter that will be a great success.”
Astronaut, physician and Professor at Dartmouth College, Jay C. Buckey Jr, said VR allowed the expeditioners to be immersed in different natural settings.
“There’s evidence that exposure to nature, which we all like and seek out, can be restorative and that it can help people to relieve stress,” he said.
“It can also perhaps improve people’s attention and mental functioning.
Mawson Station medical officer Dr Helen Cooley and Nate Payne test a virtual reality headset. (Supplied: Australian Antarctic Division)
“There aren’t that many people who live in challenging, isolated and confined environments like this so the information we get from them is so valuable because it tells us how people in this kind of environment would use a tool like this.”
Diesel mechanic Nate Payne has been testing out VR at Mawson Station.
“When I was little I would’ve loved to have been an astronaut so to be in a situation where it’s something similar to being in space and to be able to add to the program, it’s very cool,” he said.
“The best bit about the virtual reality experience is the 360 effect.
“I play a lot of games on my Xbox and the VR is very different because you’re interactive with it, you get to look around.”