How VR can improve life on a spacecraft

At the 2019 MIT Space2 workshop, TechRepublic Senior Writer Teena Maddox spoke with former astronaut Jay Buckey about his thoughts on how viewing nature scenes through virtual reality can improve life in a confined space such as on a spacecraft. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Teena Maddox: Tell me a little bit about what you’re presenting here at the MIT workshop.

Jay Buckey: Well, the first thing I’m going to talk about is what it’s like to live in a spacecraft. I was an astronaut on the STS-90 Neurolab mission back in 1998. For that, I was in space for 16 days. I’m going to talk a little bit about, well, what’s it like to live in space, in a confined environment even though it was only for 16 days. Then Aleksandra Stankovic, from our lab, is also going to talk about some work that we’ve done using virtual reality as a way to help people who are in isolated confined environments.

If you’re in an isolated, confined environment, you’re with the same group of people for a long period of time. The environment can be very monotonous, but with virtual reality, you can immerse people in a place that maybe seems far away and different. What we’ve been doing is we’ve been giving people immersive scenes of nature, like being on a beach or being in the Bavarian Alps, or being out in the countryside of Ireland. These scenes take them out of their current environment and let them experience being out in nature even though it’s only in virtual reality.

We’re finding that people really like those opportunities to get away, and we believe it helps their mood and we’d like to show in the future whether that actually helps their performance and their ability to live in an isolated and confined environment.

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Teena Maddox: Now, are there applications for this on earth, and the workplace, things like that?

Jay Buckey: We haven’t studied that, but I think there would be applications in the workplace or other places, because very often it’s nice to be able to have the opportunity to have a sense of being away in an area that has some wide scope. We all seek out natural experiences like going for a hike to the top of a mountain. We find that thrilling to look at it and see that vast expanse. What if you could create that same feeling, although virtually with the immersive VR and with the technology these days, it really is very compelling.

I mean, you’re in a 3D scene, and you really feel like you’re there in the mountains or that you’re on the beach. It’s a nice way to give people an experience of nature for those people who can actually go themselves and be in nature.

Teena Maddox: Is there anything else you want to touch upon that we didn’t? Normally, I get time to ask a lot more questions beforehand to drill down, but is there anything else you’d like to add?

Jay Buckey: No, it’s just that being in an isolated, confined environment with a small group of people for a long period of time is a tough thing to do. We’re used to a fairly wide range of social context often during our day. We’re used to being able to vary the environment that we’re in. We’re used to a lot of those things day to day. You don’t have that in isolated, confined environment. Anything you can do to make it easier for people to live in that environment is going to help them to be able to be successful on something like a Mars mission, which could take up to three years.

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