As this pilot research phase begins, we will be building on some of the therapeutic prototypes that we developed under the AHRC-funded Tangible Memories project, and are looking forward to exploring ways of ‘bringing the outside in’ for people who have limited access to nature for protracted periods of time.
For some of the groups we will be working with, this lack of opportunity to experience the natural environment or simply go outside, will be a symptom of low immunity during cancer treatment and long-term hospital stays, with patients sometimes needing to remain in isolation for six weeks at a time.
For others, an age-related deterioration in mobility and cognition, and the disorientating effects of advanced dementia will restrict experiences of the natural world.
Nature is widely acknowledged to have restorative and therapeutic effects, so how then might it be incorporated into these healthcare settings to benefit and improve well-being, for those who can’t physically access or enjoy the reality of it?
This is just one of the many questions that our multi-disciplinary team will be researching over the next six months, as we collaborate with the Teenage and Young Adult ward at the Bristol Oncology Centre, the Teenage Cancer Trust and a Brunelcare home for older people in east Bristol.
We will be exploring the potential of virtual reality for the teenage and young adult cancer patients at the Oncology Centre, offering 360°immersive experiences of nature through specially produced film and sound content.
At the residential care home, we will mainly develop the use of the Soundscape rocking chair, which can transport the individual to a natural environment by evoking the imagination, using atmospheric sounds and audio. The rocking motion of the chair triggers sound recordings from nature, such as the dawn chorus, waves on the seashore, or walking on snow, and plays these soundtracks through stereo speakers embedded in the chair’s headrest. Other nature-themed content which the rocking chair plays at random, includes poetry like Wordworth’s Daffodils, and classical music such as The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams.
In both settings, we will experiment with natural materials and digital technologies to develop multi-sensory sound-emitting objects.
So where better to find nature in all its multifarious forms, other than outdoors? Surely very few representations of nature can surpass the sound, film and image archives of one of our project partners, in the BBC Natural History Unit. As a starting point for our research, I had the great pleasure of exploring some of these awe-inspiring collections, and meeting some of the archive and digital production teams for the first time, to progress some ideas about how best to begin.
I was given an exhilarating taster of some of the virtual reality films available, using both the HTC Vive headset and the more portable Samsung Gear VR. With the help of some sophisticated 360°film-making, I took a virtual trip to the Kashmiri mountains and enjoyed an underwater dive off the coast of Costa Rica. Here’s me getting very involved in one of these immersive experiences!
Afterwards I was introduced to the BBC’s digital sound library, and was struck by the sheer volume and diversity of these audio archives. In this extensive and absorbing sound store, any generic searches quickly proved pointless. For example, I needed to specify whether the sound of a storm that I was looking for, was specifically a sandstorm, snowstorm, thunderstorm, tropical storm, monsoon, hurricane or other kind of environmental maelstrom. Type ‘dawn chorus’ into the online search box, and initially, most people would expect birdsong. But dawn chorus in the rainforest includes gibbons, frogs, insects and the sound of dripping water. Dawn chorus on Talan Island however, on the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia, sounded a deafening mass colony of crested auklets.
As well as the atmospheric audio, the brief descriptions of these sound recordings conjured up equally vivid scenes:
‘Whistling wind in the harbour, with some rattling of ships rigging’
‘Large flock of Greater Snow Geese flying overhead on the Delmarva Peninsula, Virginia’ .
These poetic snippets and their accompanying sound files gave me ideas about curating an aural story or journey for the rocking chair.
But what about unsettling and disturbing nature sounds? What about ‘European Wolves howling, ravens picking at carcass; growling, snarling, chewing and crunching bones’? Or presumably, the irritation caused by listening to a ‘High pitched whine from a swarm of brine flies’?
The BBC Archives Manager and I had an interesting conversation about our objectives for the project. In a healthcare setting, where we are seeking to improve patients’ and residents’ sense of well-being, should we only include nature content that would be considered relaxing and therapeutic? Inevitably, what is defined as relaxing and therapeutic, is also highly subjective, even cultural.
Thanks to the benefits of working in collaboration, we will be better able to address some of these questions once we start working alongside the staff and young people at the Oncology Centre, and the carers and older people at Deerhurst, in order to co-design some prototypes and experiences that they want to use and enjoy.