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‘Virtual Travel’ With Real Friends is Combating Isolation

Retirement communities embrace 3D virtual reality technology

Virtual reality view of a cactus and other plants

Pawel Libera / Getty Images

Virtual visitors to the Princess of Wales Conservatory at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London can look up at the sky, down at the cactus or all around them in the dry tropic section.

En español | At Carlsbad By The Sea, a senior living community in California, a group of four residents recently came together to take a vacation.

Or, rather, a “vacation,” experienced courtesy of a virtual reality (VR) program that the nonprofit Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing directed. The participants donned Samsung Gear VR headsets.

When one suggested they go to a beach in Belgium he remembered visiting as a child, “the facilitator took him and the whole group to that spot, and he just immediately lit up when he saw the pier,” says Davis Park, vice president of the innovation center. In the past five years, the center has been testing VR technology at Front Porch communities such as Carlsbad By The Sea, a little more than 30 miles up the coast from San Diego.

Groups can share realistic simulation

Senior living communities and experts concerned about isolation among older people — including AARP — are increasingly embracing VR, which creates an often stunningly realistic 3-D simulation of an experience or place as a way to not only transport people with mobility issues beyond the confines of their homes but also create crucial social connections.

One of the most pressing problems in people’s later years is social isolation, which affects more than 8 million older adults and is associated with mental and physical health issues that include depression, earlier onset of dementia and higher blood pressure.

The growing interest in using VR to combat isolation is quietly visible this week at CES, the Consumer Technology Association’s enormous annual electronics show. Held every January, the show draws more than 170,000 people in the tech business or media to the Las Vegas Strip. This week, the 2020 show is packed with dozens of vendors in the VR field, which has long been and still is mostly focused on the lucrative realm of gaming. VR software producers and hardware companies include HTC Vive, Lenovo and Samsung.

Among the participants is AARP Innovation Labs’ Alcove, an application that can be used with the Oculus Go VR headset and soon with the newer, higher fidelity Oculus Quest. Created with Somerville, Massachusetts- based Rendever, a startup developing VR experiences for people in senior living facilities, Alcove is aimed at intergenerational families and available free to anyone in the Oculus app store. An Oculus Go sells for about $150.

The application, released in beta last year and hitting CES this week with many new features, is set up like a virtual home where people can move around in “rooms” and choose destinations to visit together.

“It’s about creating a shared experience,” says Rick Robinson, vice president of product development for AARP Innovation Labs. “You can have a 15-year-old in Washington, D.C., looking at the Eiffel Tower with his grandparents in California.”

The experience is similar at the Front Porch communities.

“People start talking,” says Park of Front Porch, which also used Rendever software for its VR project and has published a white paper on VR’s potential to help older adults in senior living.

“Someone says, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ And everybody turns to take a look,” Park says. “It gives them such joy to connect with one another. They’re all experiencing the same thing.”

Senior communities embrace VR

In addition to Front Porch with 10 retirement communities in California and one each in Florida and Louisiana, senior living communities that are exploring VR’s potential for their residents include Aegis Living, based in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, Washington. It owns and operates 32 assisted living and memory care communities, mostly in California and Washington.

“Everybody is really thirsty to get into this market because of the boomer population coming through,” says Chris Corrigall, vice president of life enrichment at Aegis. The company has been testing VR tech with its residents for the past three years.

“We get to know residents and their life stories and create experiences that really make it meaningful,” Corrigall says. “Maybe they’ll say, ‘Let’s go to Venice,’ where they’ve taken their honeymoon years ago.”

Now that the software has advanced and the equipment has become much more user-friendly and affordable, Aegis is planning to expand the project beyond its experimental phase to all of its communities, along with VR programming from producers such as Google Earth VR, Jigsaw 360 and Real VR Fishing.

“I’ve evaluated every product you can shake a stick at,” Corrigall says. “Now the glitches are being worked through, and it’s just opening up way more doors for us. There are infinite possibilities.”

More on CES 2020 in Las Vegas

 

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