A virtual reality view of part of Clemson University’s campus.
Image Credit: Max Knipstein

Not everyone has the luxury of living near a state park or even a green space. Lack of transportation, mobility constraints or a compromised immune system during a pandemic mean some people can’t even travel to fulfill their outdoor needs now that some of these spaces are reopening.

A Clemson faculty member argues that people who can’t bring themselves outdoors should reap the benefits of green spaces by having the outdoors brought to them. According to Matthew Browning, assistant professor in Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department, virtual green spaces may help people experience some of the same benefits associated with being outdoors.

“You don’t need to be outside anymore to experience the great outdoors,” Browning said. “Virtual reality nature experiences can be particularly beneficial for people that live in highly urbanized areas where community parks are either shut down or community members don’t feel they are safe places to be during the pandemic.”

Simulated nature experiences use technological devices, such as virtual reality headsets or video games, to help people experience the sights and sounds of being outside without leaving their room. Although the technology can’t entirely replicate the outdoor experience, Browning said virtual experiences may be useful during the pandemic as well as in health care settings.

“Even short-term exposures to natural settings can positively impact our health and well-being,” Browning said. “Virtual reality certainly helps patients with depression and mental health but also has other uses, such as treating low-grade inflammation, chronic stress and other causes of disease.”

Browning leads the Clemson University Virtual Reality and Nature Lab, which applies a collaborative, interdisciplinary and technological focus to the study of people’s connections and interactions with the natural world. His research aims to improve human health and well-being through environmental interventions, both physical and simulated, and is conducted with several other researchers across the country and in different parts of the world.

Matthew Browning

Matt Browning, an assistant professor in Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department, leads the university’s Virtual Reality and Nature Lab.
Image Credit: College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences

That work recently led to Browning becoming a Clemson University School of Health Research Faculty Scholar, an appointment awarded to faculty members who demonstrate a strong record of health research, teaching and service in collaboration with other Clemson faculty and students, as well as Prisma Health–Upstate researchers and other health partners.

Browning’s collaborations with Upstate providers include the Prisma Health Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine. He said the appointment reaffirms the potential for virtual reality in the health care field.

“A growing number of people are interested in therapeutic applications of virtual reality, I think for a variety of reasons,” Browning said. “Right now, for example, we’re currently exploring how pediatric patients in residential care at Carle Hospital in Urbana, Illinois can use virtual reality to help their patient experience.”

Browning’s lab is also partnering with several different departments in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences and throughout the university to explore its potential in other fields. These partnerships include working with faculty and students in the Department of Communication, of which Browning is an affiliate faculty member, to measure the short-term psychological benefits of virtual reality.

Other projects include working with Dr. Anjali Joseph, Director of the Center for Health Facilities Design & Testing in the School of Architecture, about virtual reality’s potential for design research. One of their co-authored papers provides a tutorial for health care facility researchers to test designs with virtual reality before projects move to construction. Another paper that they are currently writing provides a similar tutorial for landscape architects interested in outdoor spaces, like public parks and plazas.

Browning’s lab is also serving as a valuable place for undergraduate and graduate students to conduct research of their own. Lab Manager and Ph.D. student Olivia McAnirlin is using the lab to explore virtual reality as a storytelling mechanism, particularly for those without access to the outdoors.

“Storytelling can be a powerful tool for people who are confined to a nursing home or assisted living facility that they can’t leave,” McAnirlin said. “I’m interested in exploring how regifting outdoor memories they once had through virtual reality can impact their quality of life.”

Olivia McAnirlin

Clemson doctoral student Olivia McAnirlin manages the Virtual Reality and Nature Lab with Dr. Browning.
Image Credit: College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences

McAnirlin and Browning are working with the Clemson Osher Lifelong Institute (OLLI) to conduct focus group interviews on how to talk to older adults about virtual reality, such as what they already know about the technology and any questions or worries they may have about using it. One of their preliminary findings is that many OLLI members had purchased virtual technology headsets for their grandchildren without understanding how these gifts could be used in therapeutic ways.

“It’s been a valuable exercise for us to learn more about OLLI members’ interest in virtual reality and its applications,” said McAnirlin. “At the same time, we’re helping them see that it’s a tool with many uses that allows them to explore new places and experiences without necessarily serving as a replacement for doing that in real life.”

Browning said he’s excited to see the lab becoming a resource for faculty members and students across the university.

“It really speaks to the interdisciplinary audience for this work, as this technology and its application can be used in so many different fields,” Browning said. “Through the lab, we can study the mechanisms by which nature benefits people and use that research to enhance programs and initiatives that elicit the mental or physical health outcomes that policymakers really care about. It would be lovely if the lab could help in a small way to make that vision a reality.”

Visit the Clemson University Virtual Reality and Nature Lab website for details about current research projects and collaborations.