One of the drawbacks to signing on for a manned mission to Mars: It's a two-plus year commitment to confined spaces, and there is little if any opportunity for a walk in the woods.
Former astronaut Jay Buckey hopes to address that problem by providing future spacefarers with virtual reality R&R options. The idea: Since decades of research suggests sunlight and greenery is good for your mental health, why not take the experience virtual while up in space?
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The essential concept will be familiar to Star Trek fans - viva la holodeck! - but only recently has VR technology advanced to the point where simulated R&R is genuinely possible. According to this intriguing report at Popular Science, Buckey and his team are currently testing Oculus Rift headsets in the remote Arctic, to see if virtual reality nature walks can help isolated workers with mood and stress levels.
The VR headsets are now in circulation at a military station located in Alert, Canada - about 500 miles from the North Pole. "People who live in this Alert station, they do well but it's dark all the time and it's very cold outside," Buckey tells Popular Science. "So it's a small group of people living in a confined space all the time. It's not like you can go out for a walk in the woods."
Residents at the Alert facility can choose from two categories of virtual scenarios. The first offers stationary 360-degree views of scenic environments in high-definition - the beach, say, or the mountains. With the second option, viewers can move through a simulation of the UK seaside village of Wembury.
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Buckey, who flew aboard NASA's Space Shuttle as part of the Neurolab mission in 1998, is also a physician, and he hopes the virtual reality experiment will have real medical and psychological benefits for future astronauts. If all goes according to plan, the team hopes to soemday bring the great outdoors to the International Space Station, or maybe future manned missions to Mars.
You can check out a walkthrough of the virtual seaside scenario below.