Elsewhere in Science: Virtual plants, real benefits?

RoboPlant will use cutting-edge technology to demonstrate the crucial benefits of plant life to mankind. Another project that recently hit the news is doing something similar, but in a rather unconventional way – using virtual reality technology.

Exposure to the sights and sounds of nature – trees and plants swaying in the wind, the sound of running water and wildlife, for example – has long been believed to have powerful healing effects on the human body. There are some who would attribute this to some ‘spiritual’ connection, but when we approach this subject with a scientific vision, what we see is far more interesting. A recent report in NewScientist (15th June 2013) discussed evidence for the phenomenon known as ‘biophilia’, some of the possible underlying biological causes, and how it’s being combined with virtual reality technology to potentially aid the recovery of bed-ridden hospital patients.

Empirical evidence has indeed found there to be various health benefits to the sensory stimulations of exposure to natural environments. A study on children with ADHD found that the calming effects of playing in an environment with greenery compared to an urban environment was equivalent to one dose of medication, while other studies on adults have found that being in a forest for prolonged periods is linked with decreased heart rate and stress hormone production, and increased production of immune system cells. Stress and high blood pressure are linked with increased susceptibility to heart disease, while immune system cells help fend off infectious disease, suggesting that the sensory stimulations of green environments may have significant health benefits. But how does this work? Biologist E.O. Wilson suggested that the phenomenon has an evolutionary basis, as the human brain evolved in a natural setting. For example, abundant plant life, and other features such as running water are indicative of plentiful resources, giving early humans cause to be less stressed and therefore prompting appropriate physiological responses. Aside from this theory, the underlying biological mechanisms behind ‘biophilia’ remain mysterious.

Even viewing images and videos of nature – including computer-generated ones – has been linked with reduced heart rate and blood pressure in numerous studies. This has inspired a research team at the University of Birmingham led by Robert Stone to attempt to replicate the experience of nature using virtual reality technology, in the hope that it can be used to bring the benefits of nature to hospital patients, in particular those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They have developed beautiful and highly detailed computer-generated landscapes using the same technology used in modern computer games, and recorded sounds from natural forests to complement the visual imagery. Patients experience this via a plasma screen and headphones, and are able to freely wander the virtual environment using a gamepad. Stone’s project is still in development so we are yet to see any empirical evidence of potential benefits to patient recovery.

A walk in virtual forest generated in a computer graphics engine could potentially aid the recovery of bed-ridden patients. Source: Crytek

A walk in virtual forest generated in a computer graphics engine could potentially aid the recovery of bed-ridden patients. Image source: Crytek

This is all well and good, but what does it have to do with RoboPlant? Although our project is a human-sized mechanical plant, while Stone’s is a virtual reality initiative, both have the same core theme in common.  Both projects are combining current biological knowledge with technological innovations in order to replicate plant life and show its potential benefits. While RoboPlant will aim to demonstrate the fundamental benefits (namely photosynthesis), Stone’s project uses technology to attempt to demonstrate some of the more novel and less-studied benefits. By combining expertise from multiple fields of science and technology, it may be possible to progress science to benefit mankind in ways we could not have imagined before.

Source: NewScientist

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