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Can a Virtual Therapist Keep the Peace on the Way to Mars? NASA Wants to Find Out.

NASA has funded an effort to develop Oculus Rift content that offers astronauts a day at the beach.

Shutterstock / JMicic

Take a group of perfectly nice people, squeeze them into a tiny space for a few months and things tend to get a little tense.

It’s a reliable rule of reality television and space voyages alike. In fact, there’s a well-documented history of social order breaking down among astronauts, cosmonauts and participants in extended space flight simulations, leading in at least one case to “drunken brawling,” as Mary Roach noted in her book “Packing for Mars.”

This represents a serious issue for NASA as it contemplates years-long expeditions to the Red Planet, ranking the challenges of social psychology up there with the technical hurdles of the mission.

In recognition of that, NASA’s National Space Biomedical Research Institute awarded Dartmouth $1.6 million this summer to develop a form of virtual reality therapy.

Specifically, Dartmouth’s Digital Arts Leadership and Innovation Lab is developing content for the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset designed to manipulate mood in lieu of access to human psychologists. The project could potentially help alleviate “depression, stress, anxiety, interpersonal conflict, isolation, fatigue, confinement and other psychological challenges of long-duration space exploration missions,” said Jay Buckey, the principal investigator on the project, in a statement.

For instance, the content could help astronauts relax by providing them the virtual experience of walking on the beach, taking a hike or seeing their spouses or children — all while residing within a spacecraft with marginally more elbow room than a go-kart. They’re also developing ways of adding sounds and smells to accentuate the effects — emulating, say, suntan oil or piña coladas.

The goal is to “trick the brain and make people feel as if they are in a variety of beautiful and calm settings,” said Lorie Loeb, executive director of the lab, in a statement.

(For what it’s worth, earlier this year I tried a virtual spacewalk program on the headset developed by Oculus, which Facebook announced plans to acquire in March. The experience was so convincing I pretty quickly forgot I was basically miming in front of a room of bemused onlookers.)

The project is part of the Virtual Space Station initiative, a set of training and treatment programs that Dartmouth, Harvard, UCLA and others have been collaborating on since 2001.

Six crew members will put the system to the test during an eight-month stay at the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, which began on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Dartmouth researchers plan to carry out a separate evaluation in Antarctica, where the isolated landscape offers an ideal setting for testing the limits of frayed nerves.

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