Connecting with nature through tangible, digital experiences

With care home residents and hospital patients spending much of their time indoors, how can we help them to re-connect with nature?

In a previous project, Tangible Memories: Community in Care, a team of researchers discovered that care home residents experienced a disconnection with the natural world. This was especially true for those with dementia or physical disabilities that prevented them from going outside.

This led them to ask similar questions of hospital-bound young people. As it turned out, many groups of people felt the need to live well by reconnecting with nature in a way that made sense for their condition.

What did the project involve? 

In this small-scale, exploratory study, the team explored and co-designed a range of prototypes that could help bring nature into healthcare settings. A core aim of the project was to do this with young and older people, carers, and healthcare providers, and then work with them to find out how and if the prototypes made any difference to their lives.

The team collaborated with Bristol-based older persons’ homes, the teenage cancer ward at Bristol Royal Infirmary, the Teenage Cancer Trust, and the BBC Natural History Unit to explore the ways BBC data, media, and material could be used to create positive experiences for people who aren’t able to explore the natural world fully.

Using sound and image archives from the BBC Natural History Unit, they explored multi-sensory and immersive experiences. This included Virtual Reality, tactile ‘Mutual Instruments’ and a rocking chair that transports the sitter to the natural world through evocative soundscapes.

With the Virtual Reality prototype, for example, patients were able to choose whether they wanted to immerse themselves underwater and visit a coral reef or a shipwreck, watch a Blue Whale swim past, or try and touch virtual jellyfish. The films are freely available online, making them cost-effective for charities like the Teenage Cancer Trust) and were created using computer-generated imagery.  

Patients and parents responded:  

Holly (patient): ‘I can see [VR] being something that if you’re stressed or anxious, just pop this on and get away, to feel like you’re somewhere else – that would be when I would use it. I think that would be quite a good thing to do’.  

Laura (patient): ‘I didn’t really know what to expect, then when I put it on, I was like, whoa! I’m under the sea!’  

Suzie (parent): ‘You do lose yourself. You definitely lose yourself. Which is important being on this ward, and going through what the kids have got to go through. … To be honest, it just enables you to get away from this clinical environment which is paramount.’  

Matt (patient): ‘I could just zone out completely and watch [VR] for a good hour or two or something like that. It’s so good, it’s amazing. … I’m well into it! I am ridiculously stressed out and anxious, so this has been really helpful. … This has real helped today. I’ve been mad stressed all day … so this has been real good to come and just chill out for a bit. So yeah, thank you.’  

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Helen Manchester (Education, University of Bristol) explores the potential to access learning outside schools. She works with others to explore cutting-edge creative digital technologies with groups who might generally feel excluded from the digital environment.
  • Kirsten Cater (Computer Science, University of Bristol) designs elegant solutions to enhance the ways people interact with their physical environment and each other.
  • Peter Coates (History, University of Bristol) focuses on the history of the natural world (specifically 19th and 20th century USA and UK), with a particular interest in animal history.
  • Victoria Bates (History, University of Bristol) researches the history of healthcare, asking how people have experienced hospitals through time.
  • Heidi Hinder (Independent Artist/Maker) crafts objects and wearables that are designed to create social experiences.
  • Steve Symons (Creative Technologist and Sculptor) makes noisy interfaces to exhibit and play with. He also acts as a creative tech consultant.
  • BBC Natural History Unit
  • Deerhurst care home
  • Teenage Cancer Trust

What were the results?

This project inspired a range of activities for many of its team members. Victoria Bates continued to explore care settings to evaluate older people’s experiences of immersive soundscapes, and immersive technologies more generally. Alongside Helen Manchester and academics from Cardiff University and Newcastle University, she published an article in Science Direct, entitled ‘Beyond landscape’s visible realm: Recorded sound, nature, and wellbeing’.

Helen Manchester’s project Connecting through Culture As We Age spent time getting to know older people with the aim of finding out more about their everyday experiences. This helped her to co-design new cultural products, services, performances, and experiences. This project is ongoing, and more exploration and writing is expected to follow. 

The project finally culminated into a substantial UKRI funded project entitled: ‘A Sense of Place: Exploring Nature & Wellbeing through the Non-Visual Senses‘ lead by Victoria Bates with Helen Manchester, Kirsten Cater, Clare Hickman and Jonathan Prior as Co-Investigators.