Earthgazing VR experience to help astronauts cope with loneliness

November 03, 2021

Research aimed at helping astronauts deal with isolation and confinement could also have an impact on those back on Earth suffering from COVID-related loneliness. Researchers in Simon Fraser University’s iSpace Lab have created a virtual reality experience—called Earthgazing—which will be tested as part of SIRIUS 2021, a study launching Nov. 4 in Moscow.

The SFU experiment is one of 70 to be undertaken as a ‘crew’ of six people spend the next eight months in a facility modeling a spacecraft heading to Mars.

The virtual Earthgazing experience draws on phenomena that elicit feeling of awe and connection, taking viewers on a meditative journey that invites them to “reflect on their connection to Earth and humanity” through meditation and inspirational views of nature and space.

The SFU lab is collaborating with researchers in Germany to investigate how virtual reality (VR) impacts the effects of isolation on crew members and their ability to cope amid isolation and sensory deprivation.

It further uses VR technology as a means of supporting mental wellbeing of the crew and countering space travel’s potentially negative psychological effects.

SFU PhD student Katerina Stepanova travelled to Moscow last month to set up the experiment and brief participants. She will return in July to meet the crew as they exit the mission to collect post-experimental data and learn about their Earthgazing VR experience.

“Dealing with loneliness and isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has often been a very difficult experience, so this research is relevant not only for space exploration but the general public as well,” says Stepanova, who is part of a team led by professor Bernhard Riecke of SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology.

The research grew from earlier work aiming to immerse people in the world of space travel without having to send them to space, providing the psychological benefits of the profound experience of witnessing the Earth from space. 

It also builds on the concept of what’s known as the ‘overview effect,’ an extreme, awe-inspiring experience shared by many astronauts characterized by a cognitive shift in perspective.

“When witnessing the overwhelming beauty of Earth, astronauts also come to realize the fragility of our home planet and the interconnectedness of all life,” explains Stepanova. “They return to Earth with a renewed sense of connection and responsibility for our environment.” 

 SFU’s virtual Earthgazing experience was recently exhibited at Vancouver’s V-Unframed Festival.

German colleagues include those from Dr. Alexander Stahn’s lab at the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. The project is funded by European Space Agency (ESA) and German Space Agency (DLR).

SIRIUS (Scientific International Research in Unique Terrestrial Station) is a series of on-land isolation experiments modelling long-term spaceflight to assess the psycho-physiological effects of isolation on crew and prepare for long-duration spaceflights. The first was undertaken in 2019. The experiments are intended to focus on behavioral health and performance under difficult conditions.