Could virtual nature make elderly people healthier?

With VR goggles and a manual control, Elisabeth Dalholm Hornyánszky is wandering on a summer beach and in a flowering garden. She takes a boat trip on a calming expanse of water and meets butterflies on a rolling field.

“Goodness, how close that butterfly is! Can I open the gate?” Her spontaneous outbursts and observations make us share her experiences even though we are not really part of them. Unaware of us around her, she is wandering on through her VR world.

In the VR lab at the Ingvar Kamprad Design Centre, research is currently underway within the EU project BlueHealth. Elderly people who don’t have the possibility of getting out into the real natural world are to be able to experience VR nature in their own homes. Elisabeth Dalholm Hornyánszky is an architect and senior lecturer at the Faculty of Engineering (LTH), but at the moment she is one of 40 volunteers testing the virtual nature in the lab before the experiments continue in real homes for the elderly during the autumn.

Elisabeth Dalholm Hornyansky, Rikard Lundstedt, Mattias Wallergård, Andy Tang in the VR-lab. Photo:Erik Andersson

Elisabeth Dalholm Hornyansky, Rikard Lundstedt, Mattias Wallergård, Andy Tang Photo:Erik Andersson

“Many elderly people in homes for dementia sufferers for example are under a lot of medication, they sleep badly and may feel stressed by their existence. They often have few opportunities to get outside and spend time in nature, so now the idea is to let nature come to them instead”, says Mattias Wallergård, researcher in interaction design at Design Sciences, LTH, and one of the people in charge of the research project.

Does health improve with VR nature?
“We know that spending time in natural environments has a positive effect on health. The current lab experiment and the forthcoming study at the homes for the elderly aim to investigate whether virtual nature can have the same effect.”

Elisabeth Dalholm Hornyánszky is wandering through VR nature for ten minutes at a time, in four different sessions. Between her nature experiences, she is asked to respond to survey questions, undergo an ECG to investigate the variability of her heart rate and to submit saliva samples to monitor the levels of stress hormone. The results provide indications about how the volunteers’ health is affected by the VR environments – information that is useful when the final part of the study is carried out on location in the homes for the elderly. The participants’ sleep and medication patterns will also be mapped and analysed in that stage.

“If the elderly have a positive experience of VR nature, it could generate well-being, and if you feel better mentally you also often sleep better and may be able to reduce some forms of medication”, says Mattias Wallergård.

Wants to meet more people
As Elisabeth Dalholm Hornyánszky’s test approaches its end, she observes that the environments are very lovely and lifelike, but she would have liked to meet more people on her virtual walks.

“One’s loneliness becomes very noticeable. The lack of other people emphasises the loneliness that many elderly people possibly feel.”

Rikard Lundstedt, doctoral student in the research project, makes a note of Elisabeth’s request. He can be described as the virtual artist in the project, as it is his natural environments that the volunteers get to experience. The impressions and thoughts of the users are important information for the further development of the natural environments according to their needs.

“We want the users’ experience to be emotional, physical and social even in the VR environment. In virtual reality contexts, this is called presence and can be described as the very key to VR – that we get an experience that feels as close to reality as possible and that we experience a total presence”, says Rikard Lundstedt.

Mattias Wallergård agrees and thinks that the rapid development of VR gives us good opportunities to recreate a strong feeling of presence.

VR has become consumer technology
“Earlier VR goggles were not what is known as consumer technology, but that very quickly became the case and increasing numbers of people have their own head-mounted displays for home use in their living rooms. VR technology now also has fewer negative side-effects than before, when it was not unusual for some people to feel sick when using VR.”

Elisabeth Dalholm Hornyánszky does not experience any side-effects from the VR technology. However, she thinks that the saliva samples leave something to be desired. Having chewed on the spongy material for a minute on eight separate occasions, she bursts out:

“Can’t you get these to taste of something?”