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31 May 2021

TEDTalk: Can VR help foster good health? Prof. Giovanna Calogiuri explains why virtual nature isn't a paradox

TEDTalk: Can VR help foster good health? Prof. Giovanna Calogiuri explains why virtual nature isn't a paradox

On April 25th, 2021, TEDxDrammen 2021 was hosted as an independently organised TED event in Drammen, a beautiful city located at the scenic Drammensfjord, close to Norway's capital Oslo. As one of eight guest speakers, Prof. Giovanna Calogiuri was invited to TEDtalk about one of her current scientific projects: The health potential of virtual nature, integrally linked to her work on GoGreenRoutes (Tech Cluster co-lead and lead investigator at the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences.) Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the event was hosted online, allowing a global audience to watch. 

Giovanna Calogiuri recently moved to the University of South-Eastern Norway and researches the synergic benefits of physical activity and contact with nature. She holds a PhD in Physical Activity and Health from the University of Milan, Italy, and has co-authored over 30 scientific publications on the topic.

See the main highlights of Prof. Calogiuri's TEDtalk below:

Virtual nature - sounds like the ultimate paradox to me. What does it mean and how does it work?

Picking it up from the TEDstage, Giovanna explains that VR has become a mainstream technology – some believe that VR's impact on future society will be comparable to the impact smartphones had in the past decade. As a result, virtual nature could be broadly available to a diverse future audience. People associate VR with those huge goggles or glasses that are placed onto the face. Virtual nature uses the same technology and can give people the illusion of being in an outer environment, like a forest or a beach, while actually sitting at home.

To illustrate how she and her colleagues are researching virtual nature, Giovanna shows a video, in which her colleague walks on a treadmill, his eyes covered in VR goggles. Giovanna elaborates: "Virtually he actually has the illusion of walking by a river in Elverum. So, in this case, we connected the VR headset with the treadmill in a way that the experience could be more immersive, by moving in the virtual environment - so a person could feel like really being in a natural environment".

But seriously, why do we need this? Can't people just go outside?

Giovanna agrees, "Ideally, people should spend as much time as possible out in nature. The experience of nature is so much greater, there are so many more stimulus that you get from being outside, for example, the fresh air, or the sun on your skin, or feeling the wind in your hair."

Unfortunately, not everyone has access to daily nature. For instance, the UN has predicted that by the year 2050, almost 70% of the world population will live in cities. With less space for nature and longer distances to natural environments, many people might not have the resources to visit a natural park regularly.

Giovanna elaborates that some groups of people are facing more severe barriers when it comes to visiting natural environments than others: "people with mobility limitations, elderly living in the nursing homes for example… these people may not have the possibility to visit a forest or to go hiking in the mountains or swimming in the ocean. Virtual reality may help people who don't have the possibility to visit nature every day to integrate nature experience into everyday life. "

Giovanna also touched upon the alternatives that virtual nature can offer for a population facing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions: "in Norway, we have been a little more fortunate in this sense because, throughout the lockdown, the institutions have actually encouraged people to go walking in forests or in parks to cope with the stress… but this is not the case for other countries… for example, in Italy, where I come from… many cities have closed their public parks".

You are researching the relationship between virtual nature and health. Can you share some of the findings with us, please?

Giovanna explains: "In most recent years, I've been very interested in the potential of virtual nature as a tool to extend these benefits to certain… groups of patients, like for example, people who suffer from depression or from mental health challenges." Thus, she and her colleagues explore the extent to which virtual nature can provide similar psychological and physiological responses like those that people can experience in real nature. That is where combing the VR headset with the treadmill gets relevant. Giovanna highlights  the challenges of these studies: "is not an easy task because many people feel a little dizzy or uncomfortable when they are immersed in these virtual environments, so adding the physical activity components can make things more challenging. So we are now looking at how we can best solve these challenges and make virtual nature comfortable, and actually provide those benefits that we want to give."

Aren't you afraid that technology eventually will replace real nature?

Answering this last question, Giovanna acknowledges that such scenarios could become a reality for some individuals since the past has shown that technology holds the potential to contribute to health challenges like physical inactivity. She points to the impact of increased screen time on sedentary behaviour. At the same time, Giovanna is optimistic about the health potential of VR technology. Her preliminary study findings reveal that when people are exposed to virtual nature, even for the short amount of 10 minutes, people can a) feel more connected to nature, b) report that they would like to visit the place in reality, and c) mention that they would like to increase their outdoor exercise. Overall, her current research suggests that virtual nature may encourage people to go out into nature instead of keeping them away from it.

Giovanna concludes: "So, I think we don't necessarily have to look at technology as something that will bring people away from nature, but that virtual reality could be part of the solution to bring people back to nature."


Virtual Reality in GoGreenRoutes

In GoGreenRoutes, researchers at the University of South-Eastern Norway, the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences and at Maynooth University will use Virtual Reality in two distinct ways. Firstly, they will test whether virtual nature experiences can help with mental recovery for those in high-stress occupations. For example, those working within healthcare can use brief interventions (2-3 minutes of activity) to elicit positive emotions and enhance their attention. Nature-based workplace interventions have been shown to be low-risk, low-cost with multiple benefits.  Virtual nature is a potential path to nature for those who don't readily have access to greenspace.

Secondly, digital nature and Virtual Reality nature experiences will be trialled as a means to showcase greenspaces and their effects on individual citizens. The project team plans to contrast moving in a grey (urban without green) and green space to convey the potential benefits of the latter for mood, stress reduction and empathy. 

About the author:

Evi Petersen is currently a doctoral researcher on the GoGreenRoutes project and enrolled in the Culture Studies program at the University of South-Eastern Norway. Her PhD focuses on the role of emotions for connecting processes in the outdoors. She is currently supervised by Prof. Dr Jan Ove Tangen from the University of South-Eastern Norway and Prof. Dr Thomas Schubert from the University of Oslo. In 2015, Evi graduated from the University of Hamburg, Germany, with an MA from the Faculty of Psychology and Human Movement Science.

Image by "TEDxDrammen"