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See how sounds and shapes help mental health in virtual reality

Näkymä binauraalisesta odysseijasta
Näkymä binauraalisesta odysseijasta Kuva: Tomi Paijo virtuaalitodellisuus

You can always calm down in a forest. But what if these kinds of sensory effects were also available in a therapeutic virtual reality that guides our emotions? In an environment where you could choose what kind of negative or unpleasant emotion you want to get rid of? This futuristic vision is now becoming reality.

In central Lohja, in his office on the ground floor of an apartment building, digital artist Tomi Paijo is putting the finishing touches to a virtual experience that is meant to be both calming and energizing. Paijo gives me a sturdy VR headset that is connected to his computer, and starts Binaural Odyssey. The dimly lit office disappears, as the journey to the world of binaural sound and fascinating, floating shapes and colours begins.

–The virtual world reacts to the eyes of the viewer and creates visual shapes from whichever direction the user looks at. This also tests the reactivity between the user and the VR world.

You can experience the Binaural Odyssey here.
(It requires equipment designed for virtual games. Further instructions in the same link.)

The aim of Binaural Odyssey is to create and guide the user’s emotions.― Tomi Paijo

– This project, created together with Yle Sandbox, looks into how virtual reality can be used to stimulate the user’s senses.

– Where is the line of sensory stimulus? Can auditory and visual stimuli have a therapeutic effect? How about meditation? Exaltation? Binaural Odyssey also includes some psychedelic features without causing physical nausea, apart from maybe for the most highly sensitive people, Paijo says.

The project has been made on Unreal Engine, which according to Paijo shows that game engines can be used to create independent art without any gaming context. Abstract colours, lights and sounds surround the user in a way that traditional visual arts cannot possibly achieve. The project shows the potential of new technologies as an art form. According to Paijo, it will be interesting to see what kind of experiences these technologies can be used to create when they are released from serving the gaming industry and used to produce for example art and therapy.

Artistic experience or therapy?

But can senses really be affected in a virtual world? Yes, says Kaija Puura, professor in child psychology in the University of Tampere.

Studies have shown that music and different visual elements, such as nature photos, can have a calming effect on the mind and body.― Kaija Puura

– In a virtual environment, vision can be utilized for example by having the user watch an image that grows and diminishes in the rhythm of their breathing in order to support focusing on the breathing. We also want to test whether speech, meant to be relaxing and meditative, is more effective in a virtual environment. It would also be interesting to see if a binaural audio stimulus can be as relaxing without speech.
Kaija Puura’s test ground is the sensory room that utilizes virtual reality and was built in the Tampere University Hospital early 2020.

Immersion – the feeling of being there

And this is the gist of virtual reality – in virtual reality, you are transferred to a perfectly immersive world, almost another reality, where you can truly feel you are actually there.

However, Markku Turunen professor of interactive technology in University of Tampere points out that VR technology is still in development. It does have great potential, but it also has flaws. For example, there are varying kinds of VR headsets, and many of them are lacking in features.

Researchers are working on these problems, and Turunen believes the technological quality of headsets will improve drastically already in the near future.

The technology is already advanced enough to create VR content, and it’s mostly created for gaming industry and education― Markku Turunen

– There are a lot of possibilities and potential. However, Turunen points out, we have to be a bit more careful moving forward in this field, as there are risks involved in not knowing about the dangers of long-term use. Therefore, we need studies and tests that will provide information on both the positive and negative effects of virtual reality.

Why should sounds and images be a part of virtual reality?

– Virtually, we can create safe ”training environments” where people can face for example their fears knowing that it’s always possible to leave the situation as well as return to it as many times as needed. Because the virtual situation can be recreated repeatedly exactly the same way, it’s easier for the user to become aware of their own dysfunctional behaviour and learn a new behavioural pattern when controlling anxiety or aggression, for example, says Puura.

Katri Salminen, jolle puettu kaikki VR-varusteet ja professori Veikko Surakka.
Katri Salminen, jolle puettu kaikki VR-varusteet ja professori Veikko Surakka. Kuva: Veikko Surakka/Tampereen yliopisto virtuaalitodellisuus

Veikko Surakka, professor of interactive technology, observes Katri Salminen, who has donned VR gear. The photo aims to show what the VR user sees when operating in virtual reality.

Let’s return to Lohja and Paijo’s office. What are his hopes for the future of virtual reality?

– The Binaural Odyssey could be developed in two ways.

In the future, it could be possible to measure the bodily reactions of the subject and then ”feed” them back in the ”virtual piece of art”. The experience would depend on the reactions of the human body, and it could be guided in the wanted direction.― Tomi Paijo

Another fascinating possibility, according to Paijo, would be a communal experience where a group of people would experience Binaural Odyssey together while guiding it together, interactively.

Binauraalinen odysseija virtuaalitodellisuudessa
Binauraalinen odysseija virtuaalitodellisuudessa Kuva: Tomi Paijo virtuaalitodellisuus

Do you own a VR set connected to your PC? Try a virtual journey in the world of binaural sounds and moving shapes. Download Binaural Odyssey on Steam and answer the survey of University of Tampere faculty of interactive technology on how Binaural Odyssey relaxed you and eased your stress.

– The survey will provide basic information on how the users subjectively experience the virtual world. Based on that, we can see whether we are on the right path or whether there is something we need to develop further in order to make the experience truly immersive, Turunen says.