Plants improve performance and well-being in virtual realities

Foto: UHH/HCI Virtuelles Büro mit Pflanzen
Foto: UHH/HCI Virtuelles Büro mit Pflanzen

How can cognitive abilities and well-being be enhanced in virtual worlds? An international team from the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, led by the Department of Computer Science at the University of Hamburg, has found that the presence of plants in a virtual office environment can increase mental productivity, memory performance and well-being. The researchers published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

More than 50 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to rise to 68 percent by 2050. Already, many people have limited access to nature, as artificially designed living spaces are often separated from the natural environment. At the same time, fewer and fewer people are working in a traditional office - a trend that accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic with telecommuting. In the future, this trend could even intensify due to novel forms of immersive workspaces in virtual reality (VR).

An interdisciplinary research team has now studied the effects of virtual plants in a VR office environment on subjects’ cognitive performance and psychological well-being.

-The results of our study show that when virtual plants were present, participants performed significantly better on both short-term memory and creativity tasks than individuals who did not have plants in their virtual offices. In addition, they reported higher scores for psychological well-being and lower feelings of anger and aggression-, says Fariba Mostajeran, lead author of the study and a researcher in the -Mensch Computer Interaktion- group at the University of Hamburg.

-The virtual office with plants was perceived as more relaxing and conveyed a stronger sense of presence. Overall, these results illustrate how the presence of virtual plants in VR can have a positive impact on users and they provide important impetus for design considerations in the development of future working and learning spaces,- says Frank Steinicke, co-author of the study and head of the working group.

For the study, the researchers designed two test environments in which the same virtual office was used either with or without plants. They then had 39 subjects perform short-term memory and creativity tasks while in the virtual environments. Unlike previous work, the presence or absence of plants was studied in isolation, ensuring that the observed effects were not due to other confounding variables. In addition to the cognitive tests, subjects rated their mood and emotions after being exposed to both environments.

Original publication

F. Mostajeran, F. Steinicke, S. Reinhart, W. Stuerzlinger, B. E. Riecke, and S. Kühn: Adding virtual plants leads to higher cognitive performance and psychological well-being in virtual reality, Sci Rep 13, 8053 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598­’023 -34718-3