A whole new world

Monday, 27 May, 2019

A whole new world

Virtual reality can transport aged-care residents to another country or open them to new experiences, all from the comfort of their armchair. Jarrah Cohen* explains how.

Virtual reality (VR) is an emerging technology that fully immerses the user, giving a complete sense of presence within another location. Since its inception, VR has been developed for both industry and consumer use. Despite a peak in consumer interest in VR in 2016,1 industry interest has continued to grow with major companies adopting it, such as Ford, Boeing and Walmart.2

A very brief history

Contrary to popular belief, VR’s not a new technology. As early as the 1960s, a VR headset was created that resembles what we know as VR today. The development of VR technology slowly progressed until 2012 when games industry giant John Carmack introduced Palmer Luckey’s prototype headset to the world. In less than two years, Luckey’s company, Oculus, was acquired by Facebook for US$2 billion. Since the initial launch of Oculus, other big players have entered the scene, including Microsoft, HTC and Valve.

VR for aged care

One of the industries that has found a use for VR is aged care. With VR, aged-care residents are now able to have experiences they might have otherwise missed out on. Experiences like using VR to visit places from their childhood, or travels. Or perhaps keeping them curious by seeing and learning about places they always wanted to visit. Maybe they would like to experience something new like scuba diving, kayaking or sailing.

Because VR is convincing enough to give residents true presence within another location, there is also potential for therapeutic benefits. These include benefits to memory recall, cognitive stimulation, improved mood and increased social activity. Research shows these elements are key factors in longer term improvement which can lead to more independence, prevention and management of cognitive impairment, overall quality of life and lower chances of depression. More research is needed in this area but early studies are promising.

A study by MIT4 shows VR intervention had overall positive effects on participants’ social and emotional wellbeing. Compared to the control group, those that interacted with the VR system were more likely to feel good about their own health, more likely to feel positive emotions, less likely to be depressed and less likely to feel socially isolated.

A common question we get asked is: “Are older people fearful of VR?” No, they are not. In fact, research has shown that the attitudes of aged-care participants towards the technology doesn’t affect the use of VR.3 What makes VR unique is that unlike other forms of technology, VR doesn’t rely on learning new skills to interact with it. To interact with VR, residents use their eyes, ears and hands in the same way they would in their everyday life, and therefore find it intuitive and natural.

Aged-care resident Suzanne enjoys her VR experience with Jarrah Cohen. Image credit: ©Nomad-vr.com

Implementing VR in aged care

We have identified three methods of implementing VR programs in the residential aged-care sector, depending on staff availability, technical knowledge, budget and desired outcome.

  1. Self-administered VR is when a resident uses a VR system unassisted by staff. There have been few cases of self-administered VR being successful. This relies heavily on residents’ physical ability and digital literacy. This will likely end in VR headsets gathering dust on a shelf.
  2. Internally facilitated VR programs involve staff running VR sessions. This keeps costs lower by utilising facility staff. It is also more flexible as facilities can run a session at any time. However, this is risky as aged-care staff may be unfamiliar with VR and may struggle to effectively facilitate VR sessions.
  3. Externally facilitated VR programs involve engaging VR specialists. Though this can be the more expensive option, there are numerous upsides. This can ease pressure on staff, trained facilitators are more familiar with the technology and the nuance of how residents interact with VR. They tend to deliver a higher quality experience and often have the highest quality hardware and VR content through exclusive licensing deals.

Key takeaway

VR is a powerful tool for aged care but it must be handled with care. It’s easy to disengage residents with VR or make residents uncomfortable or nauseous. Once residents have a negative experience, it’s hard to change their mind. It won’t take long before every resident is bored with VR and at that point, there is no reintroducing VR. So if you want VR at your facility, find an expert who can help implement it properly to maintain quality engagement every session. That way, you will have a successful VR program into the future.



*Jarrah Cohen is co-founder of Nomad-vr.com

  1. Google Trends results for “VR” https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&q=VR
  2. Why Walmart and other F500 companies are using virtual reality to train the next generation of American workers https://www.cbinsights.com/research/ar-vr-industries-disrupted-beyond-gaming/
  3. Acceptance of immersive head-mounted virtual reality in older adults https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-41200-6
  4. Lin C.X., Lee C., Lally D., Coughlin J.F. (2018) Impact of Virtual Reality (VR) Experience on Older Adults’ Well-Being. In: Zhou J., Salvendy G. (eds) Human Aspects of IT for the Aged Population. Applications in Health, Assistance, and Entertainment. ITAP 2018. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 10927. Springer, Cham https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-92037-5_8
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