Imagine the ability to explore the bottom of the ocean, fly through the sky, or float through space without leaving the comfort of your home. Thanks to virtual reality systems, you can. Virtual reality (VR) is a digitized world that inserts the user into a new reality through a headset. It is still a new experience to the mass market, but the possibilities continue to grow as more people experiment with the technology. VR is often geared toward the gaming community; however, the technology has long been used in the fields of medicine, military, and manufacturing.
I’ve been introducing my colleagues to virtual reality, along with the people served by Mather LifeWays—one of the parent companies of Splendido, an all-inclusive community for those 55 and better in Tucson. Earlier this summer, I brought a VR system to Splendido so that residents could try it out. They were delighted by how real it felt. One by one, users commented as they took off their headset how surprised they were by the visceral feeling of “being there” in the environment and having a hard time distinguishing between what they saw and where they were physically.
My recommended VR programs include The Blue, an underwater experience that doesn’t require much walking or moving and has limited interaction with the environment; Tilt Brush, an art program that allows the user to draw in the air in 3-D and walk through their art; and Richie’s Plank Experience, an elevator ride that opens the door to a single plank 160m above ground and tests whether you can convince yourself you’re just standing in a room with a headset on.
After the fun of experiencing VR for the first time, conversation often leads to what else one can do with the technology. Here are some benefits of virtual reality that are particularly relevant to older adults:
Socialization: One of the best aspects of this technology is how it helps users connect with friends, family, and others around the world. Beyond a video call, imagine being in a room with a virtual representation of another person wearing a headset. There are multiple applications that allow users from around the world to be together in a virtual world. Popular social platforms, such as Altspace, brings people together for camaraderie and to share experiences in events such as book readings, storytelling, celebrity interviews, comedy shows, and more. Facebook Spaces allows you to virtually hang out with your real Facebook friends. Socializing helps reduce loneliness and isolation—and doing it via VR helps those with social anxieties.
Mental wellness: There are also applications that take the user to a peaceful location for the holistic benefits. In the application Perfect, users can experience the northern lights, walk on a pristine beach, and sit by the campfire in the woods. There are also guided meditations in a serene backdrop.
Physical wellness: Room-scale virtual reality lets a user move about their physical room as they wear the headset. You have fun and get a work out—like dancing with dragons or shooting a bow and arrow.
Simulation: You don’t have to be a bird to fly or a wizard to cast a spell. VR can simulate it and you can experience it. There are also simulations that go beyond fun and help the users gain empathy by allowing users to experience what it might be like to have autism.
Travel: For some people, traveling is difficult or impossible. VR can take you to places around the world and let you explore the environment. The travel industry has started letting people experience a place in VR before booking.
Pain management: The medical field has responded positively to using VR to help manage acute pain. Research is still being conducted, but with VR being more accessible, more people are taking it into account as a viable solution to pain sufferers.
VR is more than fun and games; it’s a gateway to a world where almost anything is possible. While Splendido residents enjoyed exploring the ocean and drawing in the air, the most exciting prospect was the idea that they could use VR to virtually visit faraway family and friends. It’s a virtual world, but the feelings and joy of the experience are very real.
Interested in experiencing VR? Many electronics stores like Micro Center have display equipment and applications you can sample, and amusement parks and arcades are beginning to offer VR experiences. Give it a try!