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Collage of scenes of nature from University of Birmingham VR-based relaxation exercise

The iconic English broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough recently provided a voiceover for an innovative Virtual Reality (VR) based relaxation exercise to support palliative care residents, developed by a University of Birmingham postgraduate student.

The project uses the latest VR technology to transport people into a realistic and immersive simulation of the natural world, which Sir David is famous for bringing to millions of people through such programmes as Planet Earth and Blue Planet.

Developed by Elza Mathew, who is studying for an MSc in Engineering, the project is part of an ongoing collaboration between the University's Human Interface Technologies (HIT) Team and palliative care specialist Sheila Popert.

The idea for the project for came about after Sheila attended an evening lecture given by Professor Bob Stone, Director of the HIT Team, on the subject of simulated scenes of nature for mental and physical rehabilitation.  Sir David Attenborough kindly provided a short narrative for the simulation, which is still at the prototype stage, after reading Sheila's relaxation script.

Elza worked closely with Bob to develop the project. Together, they took Sheila's script and developed a concept scenario.  Bob then researched a variety of 3D assets and effect repositories online and delivered the most promising assets to Elza to assemble into a relaxation VR program, complete with dynamically changing backgrounds, sound effects and music, to test the concept on student participants.

For the project to be successful, it needed to be visually stimulating. Elza worked long and hard to create a spectacular mountain scene. The scene takes the viewer to a fixed location, where they are free to look around to view changes in the scene, from daytime, through dusk to night, with a small fire nearby which grows from glowing embers into a strong camp fire.

Collage of scenes of nature from University of Birmingham VR-based relaxation exercise

As well as these scripted elements, further elements were added, again using available assets from the Web.  These include fireflies, the Northern Lights, which is a particular favourite of Bob’s and eagles in flight.  In addition to the scene, Elza has also integrated a special breathing interface called a Quadstick Singleton, which enables users to breathe gently on the camp fire to bring it to life, or to enable less able users to look around the scene.After Bob wrote to Sir David to update him on the project's progress, Sir David sent him a handwritten note, saying how much he enjoyed contributing his voice to a such a worthwhile project. Reflecting on her experience, Elza Mathew said: "Even before I started my MSc course, I wanted to undertake a project that would be beneficial in the field of healthcare, an area that I'm passionate about.”"Professor Bob, my supervisor, and his RF Dr Cheng Qian, opened my eyes to the potential of using Virtual Reality in this field. With their guidance and support, I was able to develop a VR scene for mediation and relaxation based on a script provided by Sheila Popert, our palliative care specialist.”

University of Birmingham student evaluating a person testing out her VR relaxation exercise
Sir David Attenborough handwritten thank you letter

"Having no prior experience with Virtual Reality, it was a steep learning curve but was well worth it. The feedback received from my supervisor and all participants involved in the project evaluation was very encouraging and the icing on the cake was the revelation from my supervisor that Sir David Attenborough had provided relaxation narratives for the VR scene.  The possibility of my VR project being used in an actual hospice environment would be the ultimate achievement for me even if it makes a difference for only one patient."

Bob will be presenting this project (amongst his other research VR-for-Healthcare projects) on 29 November 2018 for The Landscape Institute CPD Day in Cardiff.