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Tranquil VR experience shows potential for frontline-worker stress reduction

Ohio University’s Game Research and Immersive Design, or GRID, Lab and the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, or HCOM, offered front-line healthcare workers at OhioHealth a new way to handle stress while helping to fight COVID-19: virtual reality.

The GRID Lab and HCOM call the project tranquil VR, a three-minute experience which aims to calm the user by immersing them in a nature scene. Immersion is created by using VR headsets that allow users to look in any angle, along with sound and moving parts that give the user things to focus on. 

The researchers, in their study published in PLOS ONE Journal, said they decided on using a nature scene for their pilot study, citing “extensive empirical literature documenting the benefits of nature exposure and health.” Footage was taken in a forest of Hocking Hills, where the user finds themself surrounded by sounds of birds chirping, leaves rustling and sticks breaking in the distance. That technique of putting real footage into VR is called cine-VR.

The researchers from the GRID Lab and HCOM partnered with OhioHealth in fall 2020 to do a pilot study on the effects of tranquil VR. Matt Love, an immersive media production manager at the GRID Lab and lead developer of the tranquil VR experience, said he threw the idea out on a whim during a conference call about an unrelated grant. He remembered OhioHealth saying it had to put its grant off because most people with office jobs had to work on the floor dealing with COVID-19 cases.

“We had this crazy idea of what if we could have something tranquil in a headset that frontline workers could look at and get a little reprieve from their day before they go back to work,” Love said.

OhioHealth liked the idea and approved a pilot study, which came at no monetary cost to OU. That is because the GRID Lab lent VR headsets to OhioHealth and the footage was taken from a project Love worked on with OU’s Museum Complex.

The study used voluntary front-line workers at three different OhioHealth locations during their shifts. They were asked to rank their stress before and after the VR experience on a scale of one to 10. On average, participants rated their stress 2.2 units lower after they viewed the tranquil VR experience. Any report over 6.8 constitutes high stress, and 33 of the 102 participants reported high stress levels before viewing the VR experience. Only four reported high stress after viewing. 

Chris Miller, a nurse at OhioHealth’s Grant Medical Center in Columbus, participated in the study and said the experience lowered his stress. Miller said the VR experience is effective because it made him feel like he was there. He said that was not what he was expecting  but being able to move around and being in a space where he can focus on objects and see their individual movements immersed him.

“It just gives you an opportunity to slow down and when you’re done with that experience, you take those goggles off and you just feel like you’re refreshed,” Miller said.

Elizabeth Beverly, a professor in the department of primary care at HCOM, designed, researched and wrote the study. Beverly said the data was better than she would have hoped for. She did not expect to see such a significant difference from a three-minute viewing experience. The results inspired her and she believes additional work needs to be done to see exactly what they have.

Another study is already underway with a larger sample size to determine if there is a difference in demographics. Beverly is also interested in studying physiological responses to tranquil VR, like lowered heart rate and blood pressure. Love and Beverly expressed interest in creating a variety of experiences for the user to choose. Love said he wants variety to engage the user and keep them interested after more than one use. Beverly said a trial of tranquil VR’s therapeutic value is being planned and will require a randomized control trial.

Marcus Thorpe, media relations manager at OhioHealth, said since the pilot study, OhioHealth has purchased some VR headsets and will continue to look to partner with OU on similar projects. Thorpe said OhioHealth already had a good relationship because it’s been collaborating with OU for years on VR for medical education and training which he said has proven to be an invaluable tool.

Beverly said she and the rest of the research team are dreamers and can see potential in the technology being used across the nation for all kinds of people. However, Beverly said she wants to focus on the community surrounding OU. The team was able to work with OhioHealth through established relationships with the university. 

“I think my future is really just what can we do here in the community first and if it just stays within our community and we can show improvement with our healthcare workers, our teachers, our faculty, even our students on campus here, that's good enough for me,” Beverly said.


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