The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) has started testing a virtual space station to help support the wellbeing of staff who spend nine months in near-isolation on the frozen continent.
“We are isolated for up to nine months of the year, so that is about the longest that people are isolated in a real-life situation on Earth,” AAD’s chief medical officer Dr Jeff Ayton said.
“There's not a whole lot of evidence around how to deal with teams in Antarctica or in other extreme environments.”
Visiting a virtual reality space station is hoped to relieve mental and professional tension by taking staff into a very different environment, relieving the monotony of base life during the long, dark, cold an windy Antarctic winter.
The AAD screens staff extensively because physical isolation in the company of a small group of people is not easy to endure.
The VR project is therefore testing whether immersion in different environments will have a positive influence on staff at Antarctic bases.
It’s also looking at whether a digital self-help toolkit could be useful for managing mental health.
“There aren't that many people who live in challenging, isolated, and confined environments like this,” said physician and former astronaut Jay C. Buckey.
“So the information we get from them is so valuable because it tells us about how people in this kind of environment would use a tool like this.
“What VR allows you to do is to immerse people in different natural settings, so they can be in the Bavarian Alps, or they can be on a beach in Australia, and there's evidence that exposure to nature which we all like and seek out, can be restorative and that it can help people to relieve stress, it can also help perhaps improve people's attention and mental functioning,” Buckey added.