Virtual natural environments could be helpful in promoting improved human health through the development of accurate simulations, found in a study.
Researchers at the European Centre for the Environment and Human Health (ECEHH - part of the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry) and the University of Birmingham compared the health benefits of interaction with actual and virtual natural environments.
Research teams from the ECEHH are currently undertaking a range of studies to analyse the effects of interaction with the natural environment on health which in turn could lead to prescribing clinicians being able to treat patients with natural environment activity alone or in conjunction with reduced pharmaceutical solutions.
The beneficial effect on national health service drug bills around the world could be immense, and also help reduce the release of toxic pharmaceutical residues contained in sewage into our ecosystems.
In addition to recognising the value of better technology - which includes the ability to synthesise smells - the review also recognised that key to the success of virtual environments is the design of appropriate and effective content based on knowledge of human behaviour.
Teams from the ECEHH and colleagues from the University of Birmingham, which include joint authors of the paper, have constructed the first two virtual restorative environments to support their experimental studies.
"Virtual environments could benefit the elderly or infirm within their homes, and can be deployed within defence medical establishments to benefit those with physical and psychological trauma following operations in conflict zones," professor Michael Depledge, Chair of Environment and Human Health at the ECEHH, commented.
"Looking ahead, the well-being of others removed from nature, such as submariners and astronauts confined for several months in their crafts, might also be enhanced.
"Once our research has been conducted and the appropriate software written, artificial environments are likely to become readily affordable and of widespread use to health services.
"However, we would not wish for the availability of virtual environments to become a substitute for the real thing in instances where accessibility to the real world is achievable.
"Our ongoing research with both the Green Gym and the Blue Gym initiatives aims to make these options a valid and straightforward choice for the majority of the population," he stated.
Professor Bob Stone, Chair of Interactive Multimedia Systems at the University of Birmingham, and lead investigator, said the technology could be made available to anyone who, for whatever reason, is in hospital, bed-bound or cannot get outside.
"Patients will be free to choose areas that they want to spend time in; they can take a walk along coastal footpaths, sit on a beach, listen to the waves and birdsong, watch the sun go down and - in due course - even experience the smells of the land and seascapes almost as if they were experiencing the outdoors for real," he explained.
The study will be published in Environmental Science and Technology on June 1, 2011.