Exploring New Worlds with Virtual Reality03/14/2019

Exploring New Worlds with Virtual Reality

For many older adults who are unable to get around like they used to, life can begin to feel quite small. Those in assisted living may miss their old homes, favorite park or family events which they are unable to attend. Feelings of isolation and loneliness can set in.

Now, emerging technology may provide an avenue for these adults to, at least temporarily, travel to famous locales across the world, take a dive in the ocean or relive favorite memories, all without leaving their living room. Virtual reality is presenting new ways for older Americans to experience the world.

We’re still a ways off from the lifelike holographic projections of science fiction favorites like Star Trek, but virtual reality has matured into a usable technology with real-world applications in recent years. The technology uses a headset that covers the eyes and immerses users in virtual worlds of video and sound.

Getting set up with a virtual reality can be very easy. Many systems simply let the user strap a smartphone into a headset. Many kinds of virtual reality content are available from an evergrowing number of creators. Users can take a ride in a hot air balloon, stroll the Gardens of Versailles or visit a pet store full of puppies.

One company, Rendever, is leading the implementation of virtual reality in assisted living facilities across the country. The company demonstrated its technology in Pensacola in November. The company’s director of community engagement Toby Patel said older adults benefit both from the stimulation that virtual reality provides as well as the group setting in which it is often conducted.

“Multiple studies have shown that social isolation in this population is correlated with a 30 to 50 percent increase in mortality,” he said. “It’s a big problem. By bringing a group of seniors to the same place, at the same time, we’re allowing them to share their favorite memories together, as well as form new memories together through these new experiences. This not only allows the group to engage with their environment during the session, but we often hear about seniors sitting together hours or even days later and continuing to discuss their previous virtual reality experience.”

Virtual reality can do more than just let seniors travel, as well. Researchers in the U.K. hope to harness the technology to identify the onset of dementia. The virtual reality game "Sea Hero Quest VR" challenges players to captain a boat through various tasks. The game tests the player’s navigation skills, one of the first skills to deteriorate as dementia sets in. With more than three million players, the game is developing a global benchmark for navigation skills against which patients with dementia can be measured.

“This data will help scientists to develop vital new diagnostic tests and ultimately help preserve everyone’s ability to share their most precious moments,” the game’s creators said in a press release. “Improving our ability to detect the earliest signs of the disease will play a key role in effectively deploying new drugs and managing the disease.”

Meanwhile, doctors in California have used virtual reality as way to distract patients undergoing painful medical procedures. according to a study published in the journal Future Medicine, doctors at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles found that patients using virtual reality during painful medical procedures experienced reduced levels of pain and general distress and expressed a desire to use virtual reality during future painful medical procedures.

Those seeking to maintain and improve motor skills can benefit from virtual reality, as well. A study published in the journal Nature showed that seniors playing a game designed to train multitasking abilities were able to achieve performance levels of a 20-year-old after one month, with cognitive gains persisting for six months.

By 2060, more than 20 percent of the U.S. population (98 million people) will be aged 65 or older. As virtual reality continues to develop, many of these seniors may spend their golden years adventuring, relaxing and connecting in virtual worlds.

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