Within the next two decades, NASA hopes to launch a human mission to Mars. The roundtrip journey could take an estimated 21 months and experts have predicted a critical need for mental health support for the astronauts who experience the extreme isolation.
That focus on the crew’s overall well-being was a major theme of a recent workshop hosted by Baylor College of Medicine’s Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) and Z3VR, a Houston-based digital therapeutics company. Speakers during the daylong event, streamed live online, addressed how extended augmented reality tools could support the health of astronauts during long-duration space travel—particularly in the areas of emotional and mental support.
One of the more thought-provoking suggestions? Avatars.
Program speaker Javier Fadul, director of innovation for HTX Labs—a local tech company that specializes in creating immersive virtual reality (VR) training experiences—recommended avatars as a tool to combat loneliness.
In the computing world, avatars are graphical representations of a user or that person’s alter ego. Through virtual reality technologies, these representations can take on 3-D forms so remarkably realistic that they could be the next best thing to physically having one’s relatives join them in space.
“I’m often thinking about the big picture and the grand vision of what this technology could provide for humans,” Fadul said during a follow-up discussion at the HTX Labs offices in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. “For the seminar, I wanted to discuss our experiences with immersive training, all of the different variables that we’ve had experience with so far and also what lessons we have learned that could be applied to this long-term vision of humans in space—which is such an exciting thing.”
Fadul, who is responsible for developing virtual reality experiences at HTX Labs from a creative design perspective through user interface and user experience (UI/UX) technologies, said that VR capabilities have become so advanced that a fully immersive experience is now possible. Operating a high-grade headset—HTX Labs uses one called the HTC Vive—users can be transported through sight, sound and, in many cases, touch, to entirely new realities.
“A lot of people think of VR and have experienced VR as if it was just a new screen—a new display—and it makes sense. It’s definitely a very immersive screen, but not only does it display information, it also enables you to perform behaviors within that virtual world—and I think that’s the part that’s particularly significant. It’s not just about consuming content, but also about being able to provide agency, which adds to the level of engagement,” Fadul said.
He added that “being a full human in a simulation” has therapeutic benefits.
“That’s a pretty impactful thing—and for people who are going to space, where isolation and the extreme conditions will be highly prevalent, there are a lot of applications there,” Fadul said.
Research has shown that VR technology can help combat loneliness among seniors. In a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study published in 2018, older participants who had access to a provided virtual reality system reported less social isolation, were less likely to show signs of depression and reported better overall well-being than those who did not use VR. Most of the systems provided in these settings transported individuals to a new environment or experience. The VR company Rendever, for example, uses the technology to give residents in assisted living and senior care facilities access to a bucket list adventure, an exotic locale or even their old neighborhood.
What Fadul is proposing is that NASA take it a step further for a Mars mission by creating something like the ultimate personalized VR. One of the applications he envisions would allow an astronaut to bring avatars of loved ones—partners or children or friends—as envoys of comfort during the long journey. Through a virtual reality headset, the astronaut could potentially be transported into a VR copy of his or her home to eat a meal with their partner or walk into their children’s rooms and read a bedtime story.
Fadul has made avatars of his 15-month-old son during different stages of his development so that someday his son could have the experience of going back in time. He said that for someone who works to create life-like virtual humans for a living, it’s been fascinating to watch his own son grow and develop.
“There is something to be said about seeing his development, of watching him discover his own hands and then sort of modeling those things in the work I do,” Fadul said. “He’s just starting to understand language and, similarly, our virtual humans are starting to respond in those ways as well. So, it’s really remarkable—this sort of parallel process that’s happening.”
Always thinking bigger, Fadul added that someday this same technology could prove beneficial for people dealing with loss.
“You can walk around within our systems, use tools and actually communicate naturally with virtual humans; you could hold your virtual baby again, for example, things like that—that could be hugely therapeutic,” he said. “I think the opportunities that immersive technology offer might be the only ones that can address some of these issues. A book can only go so far, a photo can only go so far, but really getting that sense of connection might only be possible with these systems.”
Return The Favor: Glowing green for Veterans https://t.co/w7LwFweRyD via @abc27News
@j_rodricks1 @MJEjags @katyisd We are so grateful for these blood donations. They make a huge difference in our cancer patients’ lives. Thank you.
Thousands of patients in need of heart surgery may soon have a new option. Read more: https://t.co/3p9SO6C3xz. https://t.co/PZ71Ui3vkB
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@MDMagazine Thanks for the shout-out
After a surprise diagnosis at age 36, Paula Carrillo finds success with overcoming stage 2A #colorectalcancer with Dr. Michael Overman: https://t.co/iVnpQGygSR #CancerMoonshot #endcancer
@GKHoustonMethod Thanks for the shout-out
@bernd_montag @SiemensHealth Appreciate the shout-out
Two of the graduate education programs at Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth were ranked among the highest in the nation in the just-released 2020 edition of the Best Graduate Schools guide by U.S. News and World Report.
Veteran reopens family business in Sweetwater https://t.co/no8JZ6xvjW via @MCADnews
Angiogenesis is the process of creating new blood vessels. Learn how angiogenesis inhibitors work in treating cancer: https://t.co/z42nWglE58 #endcancer
U.S. Department of Veterans AffairsVeteransAffairs
Today’s #VeteranOfTheDay is Army Veteran Aida Nancy Sanchez. Aida served during the Vietnam War from 1952 to 1976.Aida was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico in November 1931. She graduated at the age of 15 and won a scholarship to attend St. Mary of the Woods College in Indiana. She graduated in 1952 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry. Upon graduation, she applied and was accepted into the army physical therapy school program with an age waiver due to being under 21 at the time. Aida then headed to Fort Sam Houston, Texas to attend and graduate from the program in 1953. This is where she also met then General Dwight Eisenhower. Afterwards, she was assigned to the Brooke Army Medical Centre at Fort Sam Houston then to Fitzsimmons Army General Hospital in Denver, Colorado around 1956. During this assignment, Aida met President Eisenhower when he came to visit his friend whom was her patient. She stated that he remembered her from the physical therapy school and sent a pot of stew he made a day or two after the visit.After she completed her assignment at Fitzsimmons, she was sent to Rodriguez Army Hospital in Puerto Rico until she was discharged from active duty and went into the army reserves for two years. During that time, Aida worked for the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Hines, Illinois for a year before becoming the Director of the Bureau of Crippled Children within the Department of Health of Puerto Rico. During her time in Puerto Rico, she received a letter from the Department of Defense stating that they needed more physical therapists, so she decided to return to active duty. Her first assignment was the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center, then she was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina for a year or two. Afterwards, Aida was sent to Fort Myer, Virginia to establish a physical therapy clinic within the Andrew Rader Clinic at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Once setting up the unit, Aida was sent to graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and upon graduation was assigned to Letterman Army Medical Center to oversee the clinical affiliations of five universities located near the hospital.Aida’s next assignment was to become the assistant chief of physical therapy at the Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii before she received orders to deploy in support of the Vietnam War in 1970. She was originally sent to the Army hospital in Saigon to replace the physical therapist but was routed to the 95th Evacuation Hospital near Da Nang to establish the first physical therapy clinic within the hospital. During her tour of duty, Aida was extended to deploy to Cambodia and assist then President Lon Nol because she had previously helped him during his stay at the Tripler Army Medical Center. She was constantly flying back and forth between Vietnam and Cambodia to help the president get physically better. She assisted many American and Cambodian soldiers and citizens with their physical therapy needs while deployed. After Aida redeployed, she was sent to Fort Gordon as the chief physical therapist who oversaw the transfer of the physical therapy clinic from older barracks into the newly built Eisenhower Army Medical Center. It took about six years to complete the task and Aida retired as a Lieutenant Colonel shortly after with about 24 years of service.Thank you for your service, Aida!
Join us, @TexasChildrens and @SPARKforAutism at a Community Awareness Research Event for underrepresented communities this Saturday. Register here: https://t.co/uNhKL7aXnM #autism #autismresearch https://t.co/KBpDj7yRQD
Baylor College of MedicineBaylorCollegeOfMedicine
Learn how Dr. Lisa Hollier is helping to shine a spotlight on maternal mortality and working to make childbirth safer for women around the world. #OBGYN
MD Anderson Cancer CenterMDAnderson
"With all of this support and love, it’s difficult to not be positive. Of course, some days were harder than others. I still remember how weak I sometimes felt and how uncomfortable it was to wear a pump after chemo," says Paula Carrillo."Still, I won’t complain. Despite the sudden bad news, I got a second chance, thanks to my family, my friends and my team at MD Anderson." #endcancer