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Can’t Get Out? Virtual Reality Wants to Save You From Isolation


Edward C. Baig


In August, Dallas startup MyndVR will be launching a VR kit with HTC Vive Flow goggles, a companion tablet for caregivers or family, and access to a library of company-produced and licensed VR content.

Retired pathologist Lily Mauricio “climbed” to the summit of Mount Everest recently to bond with her daughter, who decades earlier, when she was in her mid-20s, had reached an Everest base camp 18,000 feet above sea level. The younger Mauricio shares her mother’s name but goes by the nickname Ditas.

Though she’s a seasoned climber herself, the elder Mauricio, now a 78-year-old living in the White Sands assisted living community in La Jolla, California, scaled the world’s tallest mountain virtually.

To do so, Mauricio donned a virtual reality (VR) headset provided to White Sands by Rendever, a Somerville, Massachusetts, company in the AARP Innovation Labs’ AgeTech Collaborative portfolio. Rendever has deployed VR headsets in more than 400 older adult living facilities across the United States, Canada and Australia in the past five years.

“I shared this experience mentally and with her,” Mauricio said of Ditas. “It was very moving. It was awesome. It was so realistic. You could see a panoramic view of everything below, above, to the right, to the left."

Virtual reality breaks down barriers

Some older adults are embracing VR to overcome the physical, mental and social challenges that come with aging. They’re using VR for attending concerts, confronting phobias, doing physical therapy, exercising, playing games, rekindling memories, traveling to exotic locales and, yes, connecting socially.

The social part may seem counterintuitive, considering fully immersive virtual reality experiences begin when a person shuts out the outside world by placing goggles or a headset on their noggin.

“VR knocks down every single barrier an older adult may have in experiencing the world, and it does that in a way that really beautifully allows seniors to check off bucket list items,” says Kyle Rand, Rendever’s chief executive. “But more important is this missing ingredient: They get to do it together.”

While VR is carving out a place in assisted living settings, there’s also a push to reach older adults at home. In August, Dallas startup MyndVR will be launching a VR kit with HTC Vive Flow goggles, a companion tablet for caregivers or family, and access to a library of company-produced and licensed VR content.

Users can peer down at Earth from the International Space Station, ride a zipline or watch an intimate Broadway performance of The Lion King, among other fare. The cost is $495 for the glasses under a current promotion, plus $20 a month for the content; the price climbs to $645 with the tablet.

MyndVR’s library also includes cognitive apps. In one, a person must correctly identify the source of sounds played in a kitchen, such as water running in the sink.

Virtual ping-pong, mini golf against players worldwide

In Westchester County, New York, 67-year-old singer Nenad Bach regularly plays ping-pong virtually via the Eleven Table Tennis app on a Meta (Oculus) Quest headset. “It’s very social, because you’re talking to the whole world,” says Bach, who has competed against players in Africa, Canada, Germany, the Philippines and across the U.S.

Bach, who’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, still performs in person, and he plays real ping-pong too, as a form of physical therapy. “Some things are even better [in VR], because you don’t need to pick up the ball from the floor,” he says. “You just press a button and it’s in your hand.”

Stephen Harris, 39, used to bond with his dad, Jim, 76, over putt-putt golf, but that’s no longer possible because his father has Alzheimer’s. Instead, father and son, who both live in Denver, play the Walkabout Mini Golf game on Quest.

“Today was a good day, and we played on Oculus and brought us back to those days,” Harris tweeted about the game. Developer Mighty Coconut reports that about 8 percent of its global base of a few hundred thousand weekly players are older than 55.

Two years ago, in partnership with Rendever, AARP Innovation Labs introduced the free Alcove VR app for Quest to help families stay connected. Loved ones meet in three-dimensional virtual spaces to play chess, checkers or games from the AARP Staying Sharp library. They can also meditate, watch videos together, virtually ride in a hot-air balloon or explore Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Alcove “essentially melts the distance between you and other people,” says Rick Robinson, AARP’s vice president of innovation and startup engagement.

VR becomes a door to the metaverse

Virtual reality has been in the public consciousness for decades. For much of that time, though, it’s been more about VR’s promise and less about delivering on that potential. “This was always going to be marathon, not a sprint,” says Pearly Chen, an HTC vice president.

The hype has been in overdrive, perhaps no more so than when, in the mid-2010s, Facebook spent $3 billion to buy Oculus. Facebook has since changed its corporate name to Meta, and it’s a leading proponent of the “metaverse,” a difficult-to-define concept smothered in its own hype. It includes elements of virtual reality, which is complete immersion in another world; augmented reality, a virtual layer on top of the real world; and mixed reality, which is kind of a more immersive blend of the two.

“Think of the metaverse as a parallel virtual plane of existence that spans all digital technologies and will even come to control much of the physical world,” venture capitalist Matthew Ball wrote in a Time magazine cover story adapted from his book on the topic.

Experts are split on the long-term trajectory of the metaverse. Fifty-four percent of the more than 600 pundits canvased in a recent Pew study predicted that by 2040, the metaverse “will be a much-more-refined and truly fully immersive, well-functioning aspect of daily life for a half billion or more people globally.” But 46 percent of the experts predicted otherwise.

Massachusetts-based International Data Corp., a research firm, forecasts that global VR shipments will reach 13.9 million units in 2022, up 26.6 percent. IDC suggested in a release that 2023 will be a crucial year for the VR industry and, by extension, augmented reality, with next-generation headsets expected from Meta, Pico, Sony and possibly Apple.

Clunkiness, expense mar VR’s promise

VR has faced a rocky reality, especially among consumers. While the technology often amazes those who’ve tried it, getting people to do so has been difficult. Many people, regardless of age, aren’t comfortable wearing a contraption on their heads. Some feel dizzy, claustrophobic or just generally strange.

Compelling VR content has been lacking. Early headsets sold to the public were expensive and required an arduous hookup to a robust and pricey computer. More recent products, though, such as the wireless Quest 2, are cheaper and no longer have that hookup requirement.

Even so, Meta tweeted in late July that it was "adjusting" the starting price of Quest 2 from $299.99 to $399.99 "to continue investing in moving the VR industry forward for the long term. Raising prices is not the typical way companies incentivize consumers.

Folks less bullish on VR’s prospects question why people should spend time in virtual spaces fronted by cartoonish avatars. Even proponents of virtual reality recognize its limits.

“I’m never going to argue that VR is good for everybody all the time,” says Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford, who teaches a class entirely in VR. Lab rule: No one should be in VR for more than 30 minutes at a time.

‘Real’ world without the pain, frustration

“VR is really great for things that if you did them in the real world would be dangerous, impossible, counterproductive or expensive to the point where you couldn’t do [them],” Bailenson says.

Jason Rubin, vice president of metaverse content at Meta, concurs: “If you can do what you’re trying to do in the real world, you should do it in the real world. We’re not trying to replace that.”

But in the real world, you can’t do plenty of things. “If you’re into travel and that’s the itch you need to scratch, VR may be the solution,” Rubin says. Grandparents, for instance, may not have the physical or financial ability to take a trip.

One anxiety-inducing VR simulation in Bailenson’s lab lets acrophobic people walk a narrow wooden plank nearly 3 feet above a pit. No one gets hurt.

And when Lily Mauricio “climbed” Mount Everest, she didn’t need to worry about the cold, the lack of oxygen or plunging off a cliff.

Virtual reality used in for-real therapy

XRHealth, an AARP Innovation Labs startup, is building virtual treatment rooms in the metaverse to replace outpatient mental health clinics, occupational therapy, physical therapy and social work. It is running virtual clinics in Florida and Michigan in the U.S. as well as in Australia and Israel.

Following a live online video session with a therapist to make sure a patient is a suitable candidate for VR treatment, XRHealth will ship out a loaner HTC or Pico headset and two hand controllers. Treatments are typically twice a week for 45 minutes each, though patients can access virtual treatment rooms between sessions.

XRHealth is FDA-regulated and an in-network provider with Blue Cross Blue Shield, Humana, Medicare and other insurers, CEO Eran Orr says. XRHealth also runs support groups in VR where 10 people are in the same social environment.

“We have patients logging in before these support groups and staying after, just because they want to interact,” Orr says. As an avatar, “no one is judging you, and you can act the way you want to act but still have this feeling of presence.”

MyndVR is teaming up with Select Rehabilitation, which contracts with 17,000 therapists, to deploy VR therapy to treat a range of clinical therapeutic services. In one pilot at an Alzheimer’s community, Select Rehabilitation’s senior vice president of business development, Shelley Wisnowski, says VR helped dementia patients deal with agitation and sundowning.

“Instead of trying to talk to your mom and remind her of who you are, you go to a [virtual] place together and talk about Redwood National Forest or walking on the beach,” she says.

MyndVR has developed a 10-part VR series called Road to Remember: Route 66.

“If you’re an 85-year-old person in a memory care environment and you did that trip with your family 50 years ago, there’s a good chance you don’t have any recollection of that,” says CEO Chris Brickler. “If you do MyndVR and go on that trip, you remember a lot about your family, vacation and that time period.”

The company is teaming up with Bailenson at Stanford on a one-year study to better understand the impact of VR on older adults.

You don’t have to convince Everest climber Lily Mauricio of VR’s real-world benefit. “I love it because it is one chance for seniors like me and others who are even older than me to experience the things [we] never experienced when [we] were younger,” she says.

This story, originally published July 20, 2022, was updated to reflect a price increase in the Quest 2 headset.

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