On the long, long trip to Mars, virtual reality could keep astronauts sane

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Six people entered a habitat in Hawaii this week that is meant to simulate Mars. They will spend eight months sleeping, experimenting and living as if they were actually millions of miles away on the Red Planet. And for the first time, they will cope with the help of an unusual piece of technology: Oculus Rift.

NASA has been experimenting with virtual reality for years now, considering applications from flying planes to remotely controlling a robot. But when Oculus hit the scene two years ago, virtual reality suddenly became attractive for many more purposes. You can now watch a movie, play video games and visit remote locations from within a headset. It can be used to teleport the wearer to a new location–an ability that would be incredibly useful to astronauts cooped up on a spaceship or foreign planet.

The Rift headset at the Hawaii habitat contains a program known as the Virtual Space Station. Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of California-Los Angeles and the Troupe Modern Media have spent the last 13 years working to develop it, an effort NASA recently rewarded with a fresh infusion of $1.6 million. Virtual Space Station is meant to help astronauts feel calm and at home by immersing them in, say, a video of a beach or pictures of their family.

Virtual reality images on their own are extremely powerful. Unlike a picture that is printed out or on a computer screen, virtual reality can really make the wearer feel like they are there. Dartmouth is pairing the content with realistic sounds and smells too, so an astronaut’s walk on the beach can bring the brain even deeper into an experience.

If a more serious mental health situation arises, astronauts could also use virtual reality for therapy. Communication lags or breakdowns can cut astronauts off from resources on Earth. Virtual Space Station includes pre-recorded videos from psychologists and other resources to recognize and treat problems like depression and anxiety.

So if you can’t wait to spend six months strapped into an Oculus Rift headset, maybe consider a trip to Mars.

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Buddy

Very interesting — I wonder how the participants’ sleep will be affected, and whether or not the Martian 24.5 hour day will effect mood/mental health in a longer term study?

Funny too — millions of people who dream of going to Hawaii for 8 months. The participants are going to be in Hawaii, but in a simulated Martian environment. How’s that for bad luck?

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