Awedyssey: VR for pro­mo­ting and enhancing well-being


We are inves­ti­gat­ing and cre­at­ing a new vir­tual real­ity (VR) expe­ri­ence, ‘Awedyssey’, for the pro­mo­tion and enhance­ment of well-being. Today, dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy per­va­sively inter­sects with our daily lives, and VR stands out as a dig­i­tal tool capa­ble of fos­ter­ing adap­tive coping and resilience skills, and authen­tic social connection.

We welcome queries from potential collaborators and members of the community to become involved in this project. Please connect with us!

There are many pro­found life events (e.g., major relo­ca­tions, edu­ca­tion or career tran­si­tions, med­ical diag­noses, care­giv­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties) that can create unique oppor­tu­ni­ties for growth, and also can cause adver­sity. Such events can be espe­cially vul­ner­a­ble– for exam­ple, emerg­ing adult­hood (ages 16–30) presents a dynamic time with increased risks for mental health issues like depres­sion and anx­i­ety. Unfortunately, many young indi­vid­u­als, par­tic­u­larly those with­out formal mental health diag­noses face a lack of acces­si­ble health and well-being ser­vices, often receiv­ing sup­port only in crisis sit­u­a­tions. For instance, around half of youths with chronic phys­i­cal con­di­tions develop anx­i­ety and/or depres­sion caus­ing sig­nif­i­cant dis­tress and dis­rup­tion within their lives over many years. This under­scores the need for well-being tools for vul­ner­a­ble groups, par­tic­u­larly in nav­i­gat­ing future adversities.

Our aim is to develop a proof-of-concept Virtual Reality Intervention (VRI) that trains adap­tive skills of coping, resilience, and com­pas­sion­ate abil­i­ties. This will be achieved through an iter­a­tive co-design process with young people with lived expe­ri­ence of adver­sity (e.g., chronic ill­ness, past/current trauma) and com­mu­nity part­ners. We will uti­lize the capac­ity of the iSpace Lab at SFU for rapid VR devel­op­ment and incor­po­rate advanced biosen­sors and AI within the VR inter­face. Through test­ing for fea­si­bil­ity and accept­abil­ity and with col­lab­o­ra­tor input, we will work to enhance the VRI’s reach and acces­si­bil­ity for British Columbia’s youth. Possible dis­tri­b­u­tion points for low-barrier, equi­table access to the VRI may include (but are not lim­ited to) com­mu­nity cen­ters, libraries, youth hubs, and edu­ca­tional set­tings. The VRI could be set up within a phys­i­cal and secure space within these set­tings or be avail­able for home borrowing.

Importantly, we are explor­ing the poten­tial of VR in enhanc­ing psy­choe­d­u­ca­tion and ther­a­peu­tic pro­grams, par­tic­u­larly for at-home prac­tices. Many young indi­vid­u­als rec­og­nize the value of these pro­gram ele­ments but face bar­ri­ers to full par­tic­i­pa­tion. VR as an embod­ied, immer­sive medium offers an inno­v­a­tive approach by enabling the prac­tice of mind­ful­ness and com­pas­sion in small ‘doses’, ideal for those with lim­ited time or access/distanced to services—a chal­lenge fur­ther under­scored by the COVID-19 pan­demic. As with other dig­i­tal solu­tions devel­oped with equity in mind, VR may bridge gaps to health and well-being resources. And uniquely, VR may foster gen­uine social con­nec­tions at a time when tra­di­tional in-person peer sup­port is unfea­si­ble, but nonethe­less vital for pro­mo­tion of well-being in youths.

The out­comes of this work will pro­vide insight into the poten­tial of a VRI within early inter­ven­tion, and out­line design and imple­men­ta­tion con­sid­er­a­tions spe­cific to youth needs within a com­mu­nity con­text. Early and mean­ing­ful engage­ment of young people and com­mu­nity ser­vice providers/partners is cen­tral to these out­comes, and we warmly wel­come col­lab­o­ra­tions to bring the project vision to life.

Our Process

Our trans­dis­ci­pli­nary approach will ground lived expe­ri­ence of end users through­out the research process, along­side inte­gra­tion and syn­the­sis of theory, method­olo­gies, and design prin­ci­ples that have tra­di­tion­ally been iso­lated within the domains of cog­ni­tive sci­ence, psy­chol­ogy, neu­ro­science, health sci­ences, com­puter sci­ence, and VR design research. In build­ing upon our prior research on VR as a pos­i­tive tech­nol­ogy, we are embrac­ing a Human-Centered Design (HCD) co-design process with this cur­rent project, with a research/co-design team of aca­d­e­mics, design­ers, health care providers, mind­ful­ness facil­i­ta­tors, and target end users within the com­mu­nity. Critically, we are using an equity lens within this co-design process to engage at-risk end users who are also tra­di­tion­ally under­rep­re­sented in research, like youth and emerg­ing adults with chronic health con­di­tions, and adults who expe­ri­ence ongo­ing adver­sity that under­mines well-being.

‘Awedyssey’ embeds pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy multi-components of mind­ful­ness, com­pas­sion, and pos­i­tive emo­tion within VR. With our target end users, we believe a multi-component approach could be more effec­tive than a single com­po­nent alone. Multiple com­po­nents may cater to varied needs and chang­ing life cir­cum­stances rou­tinely occur­ring within these end users’ lives, and ulti­mately towards per­son­al­ized tech­no­log­i­cal inter­ven­tions. Implementation strate­gies for ‘Awedyssey’ will be shaped by co-designers’ lived expe­ri­ences, adapt­able for use at home or as an exten­sion of acces­si­ble therapy/psychoeducation programs.

Publications and exhibits

Quesnel, D., & Riecke, B. E. (2023, June 8). Get (Com)Passionate for Wellbeing: Designing a Virtual Reality Wellbeing Intervention for Emerging Adults with Chronic Medical Conditions. Poster Session. Mind & Life 2023 Summer Research Institute (SRI), Garrison, New York, USA. (Download)
Miller, N., Desnoyers-Stewart, J., Stepanova, E. R., Adhikari, A., Riecke, B. E., Pennefather, P. P., Kitson, A., & Quesnel, D. (2023, November 23). Awedyssey [Curated Mixed Reality Exhibition]. Cosmic Nights: Humans in Space, H.R. MacMillan Space Centre.
Miller, N., Stepanova, E. R., Desnoyers-Stewart, J., Adhikari, A., Kitson, A., Pennefather, P., Quesnel, D., Brauns, K., Friedl-Werner, A., Stahn, A., & Riecke, B. E. (2023). Awedyssey: Design Tensions in Eliciting Self-transcendent Emotions in Virtual Reality to Support Mental Well-being and Connection. Proceedings of the 2023 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference, 189–211.

Related Projects

Pathways to Flourishing

SIRIUS — Virtual Earthgazing to mit­i­gate effects of sen­sory isolation

Virtual Earthgazing — towards an overview effect in Virtual Reality

Support & Acknowledgement

The project is sup­ported through SSHRC Small insti­tu­tional grant; Prior ver­sions of ‘Awedyssey’ were devel­oped and stud­ied through the DLR grant 50WB1915 and ESA project AO-SIRIUS-2019 (PI: Dr. AC Stahn, Charité Berlin, see SIRIUS for details) and addi­tional sup­port via SSHRC and NSERC.


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