Viewing nature in VR or on television boosts wellbeing, study finds

"Interacting" with nature through virtual reality applications had especially strong benefits, according to the study.

Sea turtle

Hawksbill Sea Turtle in Indian ocean

Credit: Jag_cz via Adobe Stock
  • Previous studies have shown that spending time in nature can lead to a variety of mental and physical health benefits.
  • The new study involved exposing people to a high-definition nature program through one of three mediums: TV, VR and interactive VR.
  • The results suggest that nature programs may be an easy and effective way to give people a "dose" of nature, which may be especially helpful during pandemic lockdowns.

Spending time in nature can bring you well-established health benefits, from lowered anxiety and depression, to reduced blood pressure and a stronger immune system. But how nature produces these effects remains unclear. Is it the awe you feel hiking through a centuries-old forest? Time spent away from screens? The physical exercise?

Recent research adds a new dimension to scientists' understanding of how nature impacts wellbeing. The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that people who watched high-definition nature programs on TV or in virtual reality reported lower levels of boredom and other negative emotions.

For the study, researchers at the University of Exeter asked 96 participants to watch a video of a person describing their job at an office supply company. This was done to induce boredom.

The participants then watched or interacted with a nature program about a coral reef (which includes several scenes from the BBC's "Blue Planet II" series) under one of three randomly assigned conditions:

  • 2D video viewed on a high-definition TV screen
  • 360-degree VR, viewed via a head mounted display (HMD)
  • Interactive computer-generated VR (CG-VR), also viewed via a HMD and interacted with using a hand-held controller

Example stills from the TV (top left), 360-VR (top right) and CG-VR (bottom right) exposure conditions.

Credit: Yeo et al.

The results showed that watching the nature program under all three conditions lowered negative affect, including emotions like boredom and sadness. But only the group who experienced the program in interactive VR reported a boost in mood, and feelings of being more connected to nature.

"Our results show that simply watching nature on TV can help to lift people's mood and combat boredom," lead researcher Nicky Yeo told University of Exeter News. "With people around the world facing limited access to outdoor environments because of COVID-19 quarantines, this study suggests that nature programmes might offer an accessible way for populations to benefit from a 'dose' of digital nature."

Helping those without access to nature

"Dose" is probably a keyword: The researchers didn't compare the benefits of experiencing nature via TV or VR to experiencing it in person. But even beyond the pandemic, the findings suggest that experiencing nature via virtual reality could help people improve their mental wellbeing — a tool that could prove especially useful for people who don't live near natural environments.

"Virtual reality could help us to boost the wellbeing of people who can't readily access the natural world, such as those in hospital or in long term care," co-author Mathew White told University of Exeter News. "But it might also help to encourage a deeper connection to nature in healthy populations, a mechanism which can foster more pro-environmental behaviours and prompt people to protect and preserve nature in the real world."

High-end VR headsets remain prohibitively costly for many consumers. One of the cheapest models, the Oculus Quest 2, costs $300, while more advanced headsets can run upward of $1,000. Still, you can buy barebones devices, like Google Cardboard, for about $10. These don't enable you to engage in fully interactive VR applications, but you could use them to view 360-degree virtual reality nature videos on YouTube.

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China's "artificial sun" sets new record for fusion power

China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.

Credit: STR via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

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