Investor, Founder & CEO. MIT graduate. Co-Founder of Mesmerise VR, Marsfields, ARQ and Repeat.
With most of the world in and out of lockdown, adhering to curfews and struggling to go on with the looming threat of tighter restrictions that could be imposed at any given moment, the Mental Health Foundation has been examining its effects on mental health.
Research on the event of COVID-19 has largely examined the impact of isolation and physical distancing regulation on social interactions, wellbeing, and our capacity to cope. What’s been clear is that the lockdown, curfews, and other restrictions have severely compromised our mental health and has contributed to stress and anxiety.
(Percentage of adults who reported stress, anxiety or great sadness. Image: Statista)
Three psychological dilemmas become apparent and hard to manage during the lockdown.
1. The stress of the disease
That is, feeling at risk of contracting the virus and worrying for loved ones is heightened during lockdown - not because the risk of infection is higher when we’re isolating, but because we are exposed to continuous flows of conflicting information through media and social networks.
2. Our loss of places
Since we define who we are through the memory or people, events, and places of which we can no longer visit, it’s natural to feel a sense of loss. In other words, spending a considerable period of time locked indoors can generate a gap in our memories and self-development. We need something to fill the void.
3. The stress of a weaker community
Deriving from the second dilemma, in the absence of workplaces, schools, shopping centres, and social settings, the common ties that bound us together as a community are weakened. Our ability to understand each other and learn from one another is reduced - opening the doors to conflict.
The devastating effects of lockdown on mental health can be minimised through the various uses of VR technology. So, how exactly, can VR combat the rise in anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation?
Virtual Reality generates a simulation of a 3D environment that can be interacted with in a physical way. Users immerse themselves in this digital environment and interact within it by using VR compatible headsets. VR, therefore, has in abundance, the capacity to provide users in lockdown with an experience that helps them connect to a different world - perhaps the real-world we miss so much.
Lockdown ultimately means confining one’s self to the limits of their home. At best, this can mean having a few rooms to alternate between. At worst, a studio or single room with little light. Whatever the case, there is cause for anxiety associated with being confined to a small place. A recent study published in the Journal of Medical Signals and Sensors showed how VR can be helpful in treating claustrophobia.
If VR truly has the potential to export users to a different environment, then one can choose to leave their homes and be immersed in a larger, more stimulating environment. One can see how this reduces symptoms of claustrophobia and promotes a healthy level of escapism.
It has also contributed to promising research addressing anxiety disorders - including social anxiety. What’s more, VR offers the potential to develop personalised therapeutics. It’s already being used by the Mental Health Trust to treat PTSD and phobias and is showing good results.
Those suffering from claustrophobia aren’t the only ones who could benefit from some escapism. Seeking distraction and relief from isolation by engaging in a fantasy, digital and immersive environment can be found in virtual reality.
As told by Zuckerberg et al, the potential application of VR in escapism are beyond count. Locked-down during a global pandemic shouldn’t stop one from having breakfast at the Louvre, followed by lunchtime exploring Thailand's water caves. The deeply immersive capacity of the modern VR movement should be explored during lockdown to help us escape the reality of the restrictions.
Distractions from the drudgery of daily life are nothing new but companies are beginning to pick up on the VR sensation. Brands like Audi, Guinness and Alibaba are incorporating VR into their products. To shed light on the sensory experiences of VR, Guinness, for example, have brought a VR beer tasting experience to Tesco stores across the UK. As customers taste 3 new beers, they’re immersed in an abstract environment where they experience colour, sounds, textures and movements to enhance the taste of the beer.
From enabling distance learning to reopening access to cultural events and experiences, VR has a significant role to play in recreating our old free lives. As classrooms close around the world, we are seeing a rise in online modules. Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) is using HoloLens and HoloAnatomy to allow first-year students to learn at home. HoloAnatomy allows students to access minute details of the human anatomy in 3D - helping to recreate a classroom environment.
Mesmerise have created a virtual job interview training system for people with autism. They can therefore practice in a safe simulated environment to build competencies and reduce anxieties. Communicating with virtual humans during self-isolation in a lockdown can help people to feel less isolated in their own homes.
The development of VR technologies moving into the mainstream have helped immersive theatre experiences become more accessible. There is now a range of exciting work emerging from contemporary theatre practitioners using VR to take their audiences to new immersive worlds.
Punchdrunk have used VR in their immersive work to create Believe Your Eyes with Samsung in 2017. It’s a multi-sensory one-to-one performance that blurred the space between the physical and digital world. Using actors, film, and soundscape to create ghostly experiences, it left audiences amazed and unsettled. There are some amazing experiences being developed in the performing arts world, which when combined with virtual reality - can provide intimate and interactive experiences for people at home, simply by popping on a VR headset.
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