Rendever, a startup company, is working towards a future where seniors with physical disabilities can travel through Virtual Reality.
Hold on! What the heck is Virtual Reality? Is it one of those gobbledygooks nerds frequently come up to make our lives more complicated and impersonal?
Impersonal? Yes. Complicated? No!
Virtual Reality, or VR, is a computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted within a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.
VR is not really something new. The concept first emerged in 1838 with Charles Wheatstone’s stereoscope. But it was not until 1929 when Edward Link invented the “Link trainer,” the first commercial flight simulator.
Now it has found application in a lot of things including the one developed by MIT graduate students Dennis Lally and Reed Hayes that can potentially reshape the lives of seniors.
Working with the men and women at the Brookdale Senior Living Community, their technology allows the seniors to take a trip to the French countryside, soar through Yosemite National Park, and explore the depths of the ocean floor, among others, using the power of virtual reality.
Says Hayes, “I feel for the people living inside these communities, that they don’t have enough stimulation…They need to have a sense of wonder about the world again, they need to be curious, they need to be exploring. And when you’re physically not able to do that by yourself, then virtual reality is a wonderful aid to provide that.”
Vanessa Rosenzweig, a resident for two years and participant of the study, said, “When I tour I ask a hundred questions,” just like she does on an actual tour.
Marion Keefe, another resident, found the experience more meaningful – she got to “visit” her home.
When asked by Lally if she recognized her house, she said, “Yeah. Well, wait a minute,” Keefe said, putting her hands to her mouth, getting emotional. “Oh, don’t say that. That’s the most beautiful area in the world.”
The experience touched off emotions among the participants. It made them feel something.
Not everybody is as optimistic as Lally and Hayes, however.
One of them is Gayatri Devi, a neurologist. Though he concedes that virtual reality does, indeed, has the power to stimulate, but the brain is a complex organ that benefits from real connection.
“Nothing can ever replace human touch and human interaction,” says he. Then added, “It needs to be able to feel the texture of the place, it needs to be able to smell the place, it needs to be able to taste the place.”
So what next? A VR that can make you taste, smell, and touch your favorite dish or the love of your life?
To the west across the U.S., in Stanford University in California, Professor Jeremy Bailenson is working on a higher level of virtual reality which, he said, can make your wildest dreams come true – virtually
He calls it the Virtual Human Interaction Lab.
With it, “You can grow a third arm, you can travel the world, you can go to the bottom of the ocean,” said Bailenson. Then added “And the possibility to do things we could never imagine possible, is really neat.”
Still in its development stage, Bailenson said, “Virtual reality is not a media experience. When done well, it’s an actual experience…In general, our findings show that VR causes more behavior change, causes more engagement, cause for influence than other types of traditional media.”
To prove his point, he tried out his system to virtually learn new skills like blocking hockey pucks, and training his body to react quickly during an earthquake.
It can ever go deeper, like transforming your gender or race to allow you to experience the trauma of being off-white, or non-standard.
While the research related with his Virtual Human Interaction Lab shows that it can change the way people react to other people, but I think allowing one to virtually change his or her gender or race can create delusions among the elderly rather than make them more understanding of other people’s quirkiness.
Just like anything else, if done to excess and in the wrong way, it can be harmful.
Virtual reality is potentially addictive. Once you put it on and start experiencing a completely new world, albeit virtual, it can consume you, according to Bailenson.
The feeling of actually being there can be so intense that it is not recommended for children below 13 years old, and 30-min breaks are recommended when using it.
Virtual reality benefits for seniors:
Right now there are over 100 clinical research papers showing endless benefits of virtual reality to people of all ages. But the most marked are with elderly people and those living in aged care facilities.
It has reduced feelings of isolation, and improved socialization. It made people, as a group, become more animated and some, those suffering from dementia and have problems speaking coherent sentences, suddenly start gabbing full paragraphs and engaging others.
Virtual reality has also shown to be effective in managing chronic pain, anxiety and depression.
The movements, the choices, and the simulation provide patients with fun and
Sense of peace and freedom are experienced by patients despite the conditions they are in.
A typical example is a 103-yr-old patient who enjoyed her virtual experience in a beach in Hawaii, including a beautiful sunset over the Pacific Ocean.
Let’s face it elderly people are a melancholy lot. They are fond of reminiscing the good old days, i.e., their childhood, their teen years, college life, first crush, their families and the other significant events in their lives – pleasant or unpleasant.
Even without goggles, we are always immersed within a variety of experiences through the years. Some are so vivid to make us laugh or cry, while others flit in and out of our consciousness.
They are always with us, keeping us excited, alive and hopeful.
Wouldn’t it be great to add color, sound and a wider array of choices and twists to these memories that we can manipulate according to our whims and desires?
That is virtual reality in a nutshell.
What do you think? Go virtual or real? Please share your thoughts.