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VR is Shaping up to be All Age-Group Friendly

Over the last thirty years, technology – mostly driven by microelectronics applications and software – has grown at an astonishing rate, and that is in turn generating some astounding statistics. For example:

  • Globally, there are about 1.35 million tech start-ups around the world, all working on some advanced technology.
  • The number of smart devices collecting, analysing, and sharing data should hit 50 billion by 2030.
  • The computing and processing capacity of computers hits double figures every 18 months, in line with Moore’s Law.
  • The world will produce 463 exabytes of data by 2025 – an exabyte is around 1 billion gigabytes. That’s a lot of data.
  • By 2030, 500 billion devices will be connected to, and regularly using, the internet.
  • Five billion people currently regularly use the internet, with more joining every day.  

With new tech start-ups creating ever more intelligent systems and devices, it seems as though technological standard and technology itself is growing at an ever-faster pace. Funnily enough, that is exactly what it is doing.

American computer scientist and futurist Ray Kurzweil has made a living out of examining how technology is changing and becoming ingrained in our lives and how it is growing, and in his book, The Singularity is Nearer, he argues that technology is evolving at an increasingly fast pace, and what we recognise as state of the art today, will quickly become overtaken by new technology. It’s exciting times if you are embroiled in technology, but potentially scary times if you are one of the many millions on the side lines. Because technology is accelerating, it is easy to get left behind, and this is often the case with older users. Everyday products like smart phones might be one thing, but add in some other technology and older users can end up baffled.

However, this seems not to be the case with Virtual Reality (VR) and there is growing evidence that older users are just as comfortable with content delivered via VR headsets as younger users. The reasons for this are still relatively unclear, but it would seem that the actual method of delivery – the immersion of the user in virtual environments – is a lot more friendly and offers much more than other forms of technology. Entering a 3D world is much more inviting than sitting in front of a computer or mobile phone screen, but it seems to be even more fundamental than that. The fact that VR can take a user to places from their past or eye-catching virtual worlds, and in high-definition, has become engaging to users of all ages.

The fact is that the elderly are emerging as an unexpected category of early adopters of new technology, which is somewhat surprising given that cutting-edge technology is typically associated with young people. Senior adults all over the world are benefiting from the usage of virtual reality (VR) technology because it helps them feel less isolated, which is good for their mental health, and it allows them to go to faraway places without having to leave the convenience of their own homes. With the power of VR growing, it is easy to see why this is happening:

  • It can counteract loneliness. Kenta Toshima, a researcher in Tokyo, is utilising VR to assist patients of nursing homes in revisiting destinations from their pasts and checking places off of their bucket lists. He accomplishes this by using an 8K 360 camera to record bespoke virtual reality experiences, which he then edits in order to make them an engaging and immersive experience for the user. Toshima has found that by targeting previous life experiences, the mood of care-home patients can be lifted significantly, and systems like this are being reproduced all over the world.
  • It can help with social isolation. Many older people experience social isolation as family members and friends pass away or move from the area, and that can be crushing for many of them. Luckily, VR offers a means to connect with friends and family, regardless of where they may be in the world. Alcove is an emerging VR software package, developed by AARP Innovation Labs with the goal of emphasising the importance of social and familial connections. Alcove allows people to experience new places and activities that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do due to limitations in terms of cost, time, or mobility. It also bridges the gap that exists between family members who live in different locations. Apps like this have been shown to significantly boost feelings of wellbeing and confidence.

  • It can help with age-related physical issues. VR is now awash with fitness apps, with many designed to get people moving in what can be a low-impact way, and improve overall mental and physical health. Even getting up to gently sway around has been shown to increase blood flow and help with bone and joint issues in seniors. That in itself can increase feelings of joy and self-worth, as well as boosting physical health.
  • It can help alleviate the symptoms of dementia. A growing number of studies have shown that exposing people with Alzheimer’s disease to virtual reality could help trigger certain memories they once lost or help them recall specific senses, such as the sound of a family member’s voice. This could be beneficial for both the patient and the caregiver. Virtual reality is helping people with dementia, which is characterised by the loss of memory, language, or thinking skills, and is commonly caused by Alzheimer’s disease. These studies have consistently indicated that virtual reality can help patients with this illness recall old memories, and actually reverse the effects of brain demise.  And using VR from relatively early stages – such as from twenty-year olds onwards – could actively fend off the effects of dementia and halt it’s progression in later life, which is another reason to get involved.

Plainly, VR has a number of health and well-being advantages, and with the hardware now becoming increasingly available and cost effective, this is something that is likely to become increasingly important in the everyday lives of older people. The main issue is likely to be getting over the hurdle of actually strapping a headset on for the first time, but that’s not insurmountable.

With technology still accelerating in its use and application, now is the time for those in authority to recognise the health benefits and make this a part of everyday living, particularly for elderly people.