When you think of the Oculus Rift, you probably think of interactive gaming or entertainment experiences made possible through virtual reality. But NASA is also considering how those same types of virtual reality experiences could be used during long-haul missions to address the unique psychological and physiological problems encountered by astronauts traveling in small teams through cold, dark space over extended periods of time.

While work with virtual reality for the space program is still in the early stages, interdisciplinary researchers at Dartmouth are currently working on a solution that will integrate the Oculus Rift with other efforts NASA has made to understand the impact that space travel has on the human brain. As part of a three-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), researchers at Dartmouth’s Digital Arts Leadership and Innovation (DALI) lab are working on building virtual reality experiences for the Oculus Rift that can later be integrated with other interactive multimedia tools (the Virtual Space Station) that were originally created by NASA’s National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) to help counteract the negative psychological effects of long-duration missions — everything ranging from common stress to more severe mood disorders.

Lorie Loeb, executive director of the Dartmouth DALI Lab, told me about some of the experiences that they are working on to ease the problems of long-duration space missions. The first step is creating film content that can be ported to a virtual reality interface such as the Oculus Rift. Film content from a beach scene might be combined with other elements, such as the smell of sunscreen and the feel of an ocean breeze, to recreate a virtual beach experience that totally immerses the senses. Astronauts running on a treadmill within a space ship would be able to strap on an Oculus Rift VR headset and actually see their environment change around them in response to their motions, giving the sensation of being somewhere else while hurtling through the cosmos.

That’s the first step of the process – building in the types of generic experiences (hanging out at the beach, walking through the woods, or viewing beautiful scenery) – that just about anyone would find relaxing. The harder step, says Loeb, is to create the types of virtual reality experiences that are specifically attuned to the personal experiences of each astronaut. This might include imagery from a specific locale — say, the path of a favorite morning jog — or from a highly personalized experience — like taking the dog for a walk in the neighborhood. Where things get really interesting is when you start tapping into personal memories of your spouse or other loved ones to build out customized experiences.

There are obviously a lot of known unknowns — and maybe even more unknown unknowns — when it comes to virtual reality, but the initial signs are encouraging that VR can have some therapeutic effects during long-duration space missions. One of the leaders of the Dartmouth VR efforts is Jay Buckey, who is himself a former astronaut and currently a doctor at Dartmouth Medical School who has studied the mental and physiological effects of being in space. As Buckey told me via e-mail, the VR content being created by DALI has been informed by the latest scientific research, “Recent data suggest that exposure to natural settings can be used for relaxation, and to relieve cognitive fatigue.” That’s why VR experiences based on nature are the current focus of Dartmouth’s research efforts, explains Buckey: “These findings form the basis for attention restoration theory, which proposes that exposure to nature provides a fascinating and relaxing environment that allows directed attention mechanisms to recover.”

Essentially, “tricking” the brain into relaxing is exactly what the Oculus Rift might help astronauts to do. While the work with VR is new, NASA has been studying the impact of space missions on psychological and cognitive states of astronauts for some time. The Virtual Space Station was originally envisioned as a package of self-help and diagnostic software to help astronauts counteract the impact of depression, mood disorders or personal anxiety. The longer you stay in space, the more the risk increases. Based on his own personal experiences as an astronaut, Buckey points out the potential risk of longer missions: “These days, six-month missions on the international space station are routine, and, by and large, go well. But, missions to Mars which can be up to three years long with limited communications present a major challenge.”

The plan, says Buckey, is to eventually integrate the Oculus Rift as part of astronaut training missions in remote locales – such as volcanoes on Hawaii or the desolate world of Antarctica — that would provide the closest analogue to destinations of future manned space exploration missions. For example, testing on a simulated Mars habitat recently started on Oct. 15 at the HI-SEAS III location in Hawaii, where astronauts are training in an isolated dome-shaped building on a Hawaiian volcano. That would be the perfect place to test how well virtual reality experiences can keep people from developing serious disorders.

Once the data has been collected as part of the three-year grant program, components of the VR experience being developed at Dartmouth may be used as part of long-haul space missions, possibly to Mars and beyond. If the therapeutic effects of VR actually work, that could have huge implications for manned space travel. If you’ve ever seen a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster where one of the characters on a long space mission flips out during the middle of the movie, you’ll appreciate why this is so important.

The exciting thing is that research and findings from this unique collaboration between NASA and Dartmouth on the Oculus Rift could eventually help people who are not astronauts. It might be possible to import similar types of VR experiences into schools, prisons, military bases, or any far-flung destination around the globe. As Loeb told me via phone, the hope has always been that VR could be used to help everyone from military veterans suffering from PTSD to people dealing with phobias and other mental issues. Essentially, the Oculus Rift may lead to the creation of a “virtual therapist” on call 24/7 no matter where you are in the universe.