Virtual Nature Healing Environment

Nature can be beneficial in the people’s daily lives. People connect to nature, to feel calmed or inspired. Researchers at the University of Twente have tried to distill the origins and measurable impact of nature and to apply it where it matters most. For example, researchers studied its effects in hospitals, care homes and other care facilities. The Virtual Nature concept is the result of their research and supports organizations and individuals to create a beneficial or “healing” environment in their buildings, homes and offices. Continue reading to find out more about the research line and how to acquire the software created for it. Alternatively, you can contact the BMS lab to learn more or get a demo.

What is Virtual Nature?

Virtual nature is a concept developed at the University of Twente. It offers users the opportunity to simulate a natural environment in different spaces and create environments that can have different beneficial effects, like a calming influence. Virtual Nature allows you to bring natural environments to places where nature itself is out of reach and to those on whom it can have a large impact.

Digital Nature with water and bench
Digital Nature with river and bench

Research with Virtual Nature

For instance, from its use in online surveys, it has been found that dense nature appears to be more appropriate for provoking conversations. Meanwhile, having hills and water in the virtual natural environment encourages reminiscing, which in turn is favourable when it comes to social interactions. Furthermore, having open and unprotected nature leads to escaping social interaction. The virtual nature environment projections can also be used in care institutions due to the benefits they provide when it comes to promoting social interactions.

How does it work?

Virtual Nature is a two-part system. It consists of a software package with which new environments can be made. Users can create natural environments according to a template or guidelines for a specific effect, or create something that suits a particular context. Moreover, there is the viewing part. Virtual Nature focuses on showing the created environments in a way that creates an immersive experience. For example, one can create a room for people to calm down low light and an immersive projection and soundtrack. Alternatively, a wall near a seating area in a well traveled open space can be used to create a place where people come to interact with each other and the environment. Virtual Nature allows users to bring the desired beneficial effects of nature to a location of their choosing.

How can Virtual Nature be used?

The concept has been used in both academic and practical settings, ranging from lab research to care homes. An installation comprises a hard- and software part to create and display a Virtual Nature Environment. Both can be adjusted to the user’s needs. There are three major points of customization. Firstly, different equipment can be used in different settings. For example, the use of different projection equipment can result in immersive environments. Secondly, the users can create their own Virtual Nature environments or use pre-made ones. Thirdly, the optional additions of sound and scent (smell) offer additional layers of immersiveness.

Digital Nature with river
Digital Nature with trees and sky

The virtual nature recorder

The virtual nature recorder allows for convenience when designing, testing, and implementing virtual nature environments. You can easily tailor the virtual nature environments. Additionally, it allows for designing virtual nature environments with systematic manipulations of multiple nature characteristics. The design process consists of five steps, each focusing on specific parts of the environment that is being designed. Firstly, the environment of your preference can be chosen, from which you can choose the most suitable spot for your needs. For example, you can choose an environment with hills or without hills depending on your preference. Further, the landscape chosen can be designed. You can tailor it by changing different settings. Additionally, nature sounds can be added. Lastly, you can export the virtual nature environment. The different settings allow for comparisons of different environments and their effects. For example, you can observe the different effects of high and low-density trees.

Feeling disconnected to the world around you? Take a walk in a digital forest!

Virtual nature can provide a substitute for real nature for those who have limited access to green space, or are confined to their homes, for example during the worldwide COVID-19 lockdown.

Therefore, Virtual Nature has inspired numerous publications, amongst which is  Feeling connected after experiencing digital nature: A survey study. by van Houwelingen-Snippe, J., van Rompay, T. J., & Ben Allouch, S. (2020).

In a large-scale online survey, respondents (N = 1203) watched videos of digital nature. Results show a significant increase of feelings of connectedness to the community after watching digital nature. Results of this study confirm the importance of nature interaction for mental and social wellbeing for the general population and stress the potential of digital nature as a complementary strategy. These findings are of particular relevance to those who lack access to nature due to old age and related mobility constraints or a lockdown.

If you are interested in the article, or the work of Prof. S. Ben Allouch, you can find the contact information as well as other publications here.

Looking for inspiration? The reference to this article, as well as other, can be found below.

This research project was funded by ZonMW

Open access publications on Virtual Nature:

The list found below contains a small selection of the published scientific articles on Virtual Nature. Articles that are listed can be accessed without payment.

  • Otten, K., Van Rompay, T., Van ’t Klooster, J., Gerritsen, D., & Westerhof, G. (2023). Exploring associations of older adults with virtual nature: A randomised factorial online survey. Ageing & Society, 1-19. doi:10.1017/S0144686X23000090
  • van Houwelingen-Snippe, J., Van Rompay, T. J. L., De Jong, M. D. T., & Ben Allouch, S. (2020). Does digital nature enhance social aspirations? An experimental study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17, 1454.
  • van Houwelingen-Snippe, J., Van Rompay, T. J. L., & Ben Allouch, S. (2020). Feeling connected after experiencing digital nature. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17, 6879.
  • van Rompay, T. J. L., & Jol, T. (2016). Wild and free: Unpredictability and spaciousness as predictors of creative performance. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 48, 140-148. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2016.10.001

The people behind Virtual Nature

Dr. Thomas van Rompay

Associate Professor of Communication Science

Thomas van Rompay is behind much of the research behind the Virtual Nature concept. He has been studying the beneficial effects of nature and ways to bring these effects into different settings for more than 10 years.

Dr. Ir. Jan-Willem van ‘t Klooster

Managing Director of the BMS lab

Jan-Willem leads the BMS lab and as such works on creating a viable Virtual Nature ecosystem. He works with various care institutions and research projects to setup new installations and further the development of the product.

Prof. Dr. Gerben Westerhof

Professor at Psychology, Health and Technology (PGT)

Professor Westerhof is specialised in the contribution of stories to factors such as identity. He was part of the group formed for Virtual Nature.

Prof. Dr. Debby Gerritsen

Professor at Ukon, Radboudumc

Debby Gerritsen is a professor of wellbeing in long-term care. She was involved in the cooperative efforts around the development of the Virtual Nature concept.

Josca van Houwelingen-Snippe MSc.

PhD candidate Communication Science

Josca is responsible for many of the projects and studies done on Virtual Nature. She studied the effectiveness of Virtual Nature as a means of making people feel connected and as a method of reducing loneliness.

Kars Otten MSc.

PhD candidate Communication Science

Kars is a PhD candidate and researcher at the BMS faculty. In this role, he studied the effects of Virtual Nature in care institutions and is familiar with many of its aspects.

Want to learn more about Virtual Nature?

The Virtual Nature concept is available for both practitioners and researchers. Is your organization interested in using or creating a Virtual Nature environment? Then contact the BMS lab. Professionals from the lab can support organizations and researchers in the process of setting up their installation and creating their environments. Moreover, a fully functioning demo environment is available for viewing at the University of Twente. A license, the required hardware and knowledge about the system can be arranged. Furthermore, the lab can bring your organization in contact with researchers and professionals that can support and further develop your Virtual Nature environment through research and innovative design.