In its upcoming resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA will include a virtual reality headset that is said to help astronauts stay mentally fit while being far away from their homes.
An HTC Vive Focus 3 VR headset will be sent to the space station onboard the Space X CRS-29 cargo ship that is scheduled to be launched on Thursday, November 9. XRHealth, a leading healthcare platform in spatial computing, partnered with engineering and consultancy firm Nord-Space ApS, and HTC to configure the headset to be compatible with the microgravity conditions of the low earth orbit (LEO).
NASA and ESA to Keep a Check on Astronauts’ Mental Health with VR Headsets
European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Andreas Mogensen will be the first person to test the VR headset designed to treat astronauts for mental health conditions. However, this is not the first time VR was used on the ISS but operating them in a microgravity environment resulted in astronauts suffering from motion sickness due to the lack of gravity vectors to track and align the devices’ orientation.
In a press statement released on Tuesday, Per Lundahl Thomsen, the chief technology officer at Nord Space, noted that astronauts are essentially isolated during their missions for months and years at a time and have to confine themselves to small spaces with limited contact with friends and family. Considering the circumstances at play, it was important to create a virtual platform that addresses their mental health needs while in isolation, which could also help them maintain a healthy lifestyle when they return to earth, added Thomsen.
Mogensen has pledged to test the headset during the entirety of his half-year mission on the ISS, which he will also be commandeering.
HTC Developed Special VR Headset that Can Function in Microgravity Environments
The specially-made HTC Vive will include a simulator mode that is designed to work with the microgravity environment and has a new tracking method that makes use of the headset’s controllers to overcome the challenges around tracking and orientation, such as jittering, rolling, and drifting of content. XRHealth, Nord-Space ApS, and HTC made unspecified upgrades to the headset to make it function better on the ISS.
NASA officials said that Mogensen and other astronauts will do in-flight testing sessions comprised of VR video viewing and questionnaires throughout the experiment. All necessary data will be collected via the EveryWear app developed by the ESA. The app, which previously measured astronauts’ food intake, has since been updated to serve the purpose of checking the crew’s mental health.
Cher Wang, the co-founder and chairwoman of HTC, said that by using the Vive Focus 3 headsets, astronauts will be able to experience the same mental health benefits that are gained from using immersive technology on the ground. She called the experiment a “groundbreaking moment”.
Astronauts aboard the ISS live in isolated and confined environments, also known as ICE, which can be defined as zones where small groups of people work under operational circumstances far away from assistance. According to a 2021 study in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, teams that are screened and selected for ICE missions generally have the best outcomes with leadership, coping, and interpersonal skills training “during and after” long-duration missions.
Space agencies, including NASA and ESA, already have numerous tools at their disposal to help astronauts with mental health readiness. The crew trains in ICE environments such as caves, underwater habitats, and wilderness while on the ground. Meanwhile, in space, they are required to speak with a psychologist at least once every two weeks. Astronauts have scheduled resting times, and regular calls with friends and family, and are also encouraged to pick up hobbies while in orbit.
VR Therapy is Widely Popular in Mental Health Treatment
The results of the ISS study will be referred to and used to treat the general public for conditions including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). VR therapy is becoming an increasingly popular way of treating various mental health conditions. A peer-reviewed study found that individuals who engaged themselves with VR were able to learn the specific skills or behaviors needed to cope with their condition.