Located 817 km from the geographic North Pole, the Canadian Forces Station Alert (CFS Alert) can claim the title as the most northerly, permanently inhabited location in the world. The barren landscape is considered a desert, with average precipitation less than that of the Sahara Desert. And from Oct. 10 to March 1, the 55 full-time military, civilian, and contracted personnel at the station never see sunlight.
“It’s an isolated and confined environment with an unvarying landscape,” says Dartmouth College physician and former astronaut Jay Buckey in an interview with R&D Magazine.
And that’s the precise reason Buckey and colleagues are using the station as an analogue for space. Their mission: to test how virtual reality technology may help relieve any detrimental psychological effects stirred up by deep space travel.
The “theory underlying this work is called Attention Restoration Theory. The idea is that exposure to nature is both fascinating and relaxing,” says Buckey. “In an isolated and confined environment exposure to nature is limited.”
Using the Oculus Rift Virtual Reality headset, the inhabitants of CFS Alert can immerse themselves in virtual reality scenes, from the mountains of New Hampshire to the landscapes of Australia and Ireland, experiencing the sights and sounds associated with the regions. “With the immersive 360-degree video you can look all around the scene,” says Buckey.
Additionally, CFS Alert inhabitants will have access to a software called Virtual Wembury, which allows users to navigate a virtual rendering of the seaside village Wembury. The software was developed by Prof. Robert Stone, of the Univ. of Birmingham. Currently, the software is part of a U.K. research program—sponsored by the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine—at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where it’s used to test the impact of virtual scenes on intensive care unit patients.
“We’re not sure that an immersive experience is necessary,” says Buckey regarding Virtual Wembury, “but we believe it will prove to be compelling.”
According to Buckey, the CFS Alert project is in its second year. The project’s full term is three years.
In space, people sometimes experience mental fatigue or low mood brought on by the sense of isolation, according to Buckey. “Also, they may just want a sense of ‘being away’ for a short time which can be refreshing,” he says.
Dartmouth and other institutions—in a separate project—have been developing an interactive suite of programs to maintain astronauts’ psychological health and resolve interpersonal conflicts on long-term spaceflights. The project has been ongoing since 2001 and is supported by NASA’s National Space Biomedical Research Institute.
According to Dartmouth, astronauts currently deal with mental challenges through audio and visual access to ground support. But in future long-duration missions—like to Mars—transmission delays will pose a problem for real-time therapy, highlighting a need for autonomous forms of therapy.