Sali Fonda hasn’t been scuba diving in twenty years. She was seventy the last time. Now, at ninety, the former bodybuilder is about to jump into the deep again—this time into a cage that will protect her in the shark-filled sea. “I’m ready to get in the cage,” shouts Fonda, the daughter of silent film star Gloria Fonda and distant relative of the other famous movie Fondas.
In reality, there is no shark cage here, no sharks, either, and certainly no ocean. Fonda has virtual-reality goggles strapped to her head, and she’s sitting in a padded swivel chair inside an activity room at Atria at the Arboretum, a senior living apartment complex in northwest Austin. It’s there that she dives into an immersive experience—an underwater scene filmed in 360 degrees. Fonda moves her head up and down, left and right, the view changing with each turn. Schools of fish bobble above. Sharks glide all around. Fonda reaches a hand out toward one of the ocean predators. “Whoa,” says the nonagenarian with blondish white hair.
After a few minutes, the goggles come off, and the “dive” ends. Applause breaks out among the Atria residents who have been watching Fonda’s adventure on a large screen, in two dimensions as opposed to the three Fonda has experienced. “That was fun!” Fonda says, laughing as she talks. “I was right there! I loved it!” Later, when some of the adrenaline has worn off, Fonda tells me, “When you’re ninety, your life is over. This is going to make life new again.”
That’s exactly what a Plano-based company called MyndVR, which develops VR content specifically for seniors, is banking on. Virtual reality, with its bulky headsets and future-forward controllers, is most often associated with young gamers who have plenty of companies chasing after their dollars. But MyndVR is one of just a few tech firms targeting the senior set with custom-made virtual experiences that range from skydiving to Broadway shows. The company believes that kind of content can provide more than entertainment; it can also serve as therapy—perhaps even FDA-approved therapy—for seniors in assisted living and memory care units. “I’d like to see MyndVR be that new, easy VR product with recreational and therapeutic benefits for a booming population of older adults,” says Chris Brickler, the company’s co-founder and CEO.
Some predict the current $6.1 billion VR market will be worth $21 billion by 2025, and that number could get even bigger if older people embrace VR for fun or for health reasons. According to survey data from the market-research company GlobalWebIndex, only 6 percent of those aged 55 to 64 in the U.S. and UK have ever used a VR headset. MyndVR and the two other leaders in the nascent industry, Scotland’s Viarama and Massachusetts-based Rendever, which has developed a VR tool for AARP, are out to change that. All three companies offer VR experiences that they say can provide a brief escape from what can be an isolating experience of living in senior-care facilities. “VR can bring the outdoors to people who are confined to their own spaces or have mobility issues,” says Majd Alwan, senior vice president of technology and business strategy at LeadingAge, a nonprofit that represents more than five thousand aging-focused businesses, consumer groups, and researchers. “We’ve seen applications using virtual reality for physical therapy and VR that can assist those with visual impairments.”
Improving senior health in that way is exactly what Brickler says he had in mind from the start with MyndVR. Brickler, a University of Texas at Austin alum, spent a decade as CEO of Xlantic, a Los Angeles company that makes commercials and other video content for big corporate clients, including Coca-Cola and American Express. After leaving that job in the summer of 2016, Brickler was dabbling with the idea of a VR start-up when he and a friend hit on the idea of virtual reality for seniors. The friend, Shawn Wiora, was then the chief information officer for a Fort Worth company called Creative Solutions in Healthcare, which operates a chain of senior centers. He’s now a board member at MyndVR and CEO of a cybersecurity risk assessment firm in Addison called Maxxsure. Brickler and Wiora decided to base MyndVR in Texas in part because of what they saw as a growing pool of tech talent across the state. “I had been in California for years and years,” Brickler says. “In San Francisco, you really can’t start a business anymore. It was really special to come back to Texas.”
To make their vision come to life, Brickler and Wiora got early funding in 2018 from a couple of Texas-based venture capital firms—AustinLee in Houston and Capital Factory in Austin. Earlier this year, the company completed a crowdfunding campaign on an investment platform called Republic, raising $166,000 from more than four hundred investors. That’s just a small piece of the $4.4 million the company has raised to date from investors that include HTC, the Taiwan-based electronics company that helped develop Google’s Pixel smartphone. After fielding calls from investors who noticed the potential in VR when many seniors were cut off from family because of the pandemic, MyndVR is now eyeing another $5 million funding round.
That could help expand the current payroll of twelve full-time MyndVR employees and ten contractors, who work in Texas, California, Florida, and Illinois. The bulk of those full-time employees work on MyndVR’s software team at the company’s office in Plano. That team designs content specifically for seniors in conjunction with HTC and Pico VR, a headset maker that was acquired by TikTok’s parent company in 2021. MyndVR’s headsets are designed to be lightweight and to sync with an accompanying tablet device, but the company considers itself a subscription service first, not a hardware vendor.
Some of the content MyndVR uses is adapted from 360-degree virtual reality offerings made by other firms. Chief among those is Littlstar, a VR content company backed in part by Tornante, an investment company owned by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. MyndVR has a five-year deal to license VR applications and video content that Littlstar has acquired from National Geographic, CNN, and other media companies. Those offerings include a 360-degree immersive video from Broadway’s The Lion King, in which viewers see the performance as if they’re onstage as it is happening.
MyndVR is making its own content too. The company started a production unit in Texas, MyndVR Studios, to create original VR programming. The team, which consists of the company’s ten contractors, is split between Plano and Los Angeles. MyndVR Studios recently produced a ten-part travel series called A Road to Remember. The film features stops along Route 66, once one of the most famous highways in the country, including its starting point of Chicago and end point at the Santa Monica Pier in California. The company has also produced live classical and jazz concerts that it filmed in a 360-degree format at the Sammons Center for the Arts in Dallas. “We try to film things that have nostalgia and iconic content,” Brickler says. “It all has the intention to somehow help in the process of memory therapy.”
Brickler says the company has several hundred clients who pay for its content in 45 U.S. states, plus Canada and Australia. Most of those clients are senior centers that schedule VR sessions for multiple residents at once. The centers pay about $500 a month or $5,000 a year to rent five headsets and access content.
Last year, partly in response to the pandemic that put senior centers on strict lockdowns that often kept residents confined to their rooms, MyndVR also launched a subscription service for individuals called “MyndVR at Home,” with rates starting at $395. The service includes a headset and tablet combo that arrives in a box the size of a small toaster oven and includes instructions that are printed in oversized type. Brickler says the company also hopes to soon offer a way for relatives or caretakers to guide seniors through a VR experience remotely.
MyndVR touts some of the VR experiences its clients are paying for as “therapeutic and meditative.” It, as well as other companies in the VR-for-seniors market, also insist that VR can, among other things, lower blood pressure, combat depression, and help in treating dementia and memory decline. Brickler says he believes the research to date “by far proves this,” but MyndVR is working with multiple research teams to validate that belief in the hope, the company says, of “providing the government with efficacy data to illustrate the positive health outcomes of this technology.”
Not all of the research has been overwhelmingly convincing. In 2020, a study on VR’s effect on senior behavior, memory, and happiness was conducted by Silverado, an Irvine, California, company that operates memory-care facilities around the country. In the study, done at three Silverado locations, just half of the participants had a positive reaction to the VR experience, with about a third reporting a “neutral” reaction and 18 percent calling it negative. Still, the caregivers conducting the study reported behavioral changes in the participants that included laughing and being more engaged with other seniors. And in a 2018 experiment conducted by Indiana University School of Medicine’s Center for Aging Research, seniors using VR in an ICU environment were reported to have decreased delirium, anxiety, and pain.
Those sorts of outcomes could be key to getting VR recognized by physicians as a useful therapeutic tool and potentially approved by the FDA as a medical device, both of which could unlock insurance coverage for VR’s use with some seniors. “We’re at the embryonic stage of understanding this brain science,” Brickler says, “but we know that this immersion technology is unlocking memories.”
That’s partly why MyndVR is ramping up its research efforts. Last year, the company formed a research coalition with teams from several universities, including the University of Texas at Dallas, Florida Atlantic University, and the University of Pennsylvania. The coalition will conduct studies into “the medical efficacy of VR on seniors with and without age-related conditions.” MyndVR has also partnered with Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab to study VR’s effects on psychological well-being in older adults. Dallas-based AT&T is providing 5G service to the researchers in that effort.
Some already believe in the therapeutic power of virtual reality for seniors. Amy Casillas, who has worked at Atria with the title of “engaged life director” since May 2021, suggested the facility adopt VR after using MyndVR products in her previous role at another Austin senior facility, Parmer Woods at North Austin. “I sort of market it as mental health, stress relief,” Casillas says. “It’s just sort of fostering something new, and I’ve found VR very helpful for folks who had trouble communicating. They can take a walk on the beach or just sit by the sea. Once, we had a fan blowing on them, and I spritzed a light spray, to make it fully sensory.”
Where a more typical VR user might swing a bat to hit virtual curveballs in a game, senior VR users’ interactivity is intentionally limited to experiences that are almost always done sitting down. That helps limit both motion sickness and the potential for falls.
Still, at a MyndVR demonstration I witnessed at Atria, that didn’t inhibit some of the center’s residents from being fully engaged. Sally Stiernberg, an 82-year-old native of Texas City on the Gulf Coast, shouted along as she rode shotgun in a virtual Lexus IS sedan that was speeding along a snow-and-ice-covered racetrack. “I figured if I’m going to do this,” she told me, “I’m going to do something adventurous.”
Mary Ann Breen, an 85-year-old from Nashua, New Hampshire, decided on something much slower. She chose a virtual walk down a boulevard in Paris, a city she’d visited years earlier. Though she never left a chair, Breen strolled along while smiling and occasionally waving to people who, of course, could not see her. When her headset was taken off, she excitedly exclaimed, “It was beautiful; much better than a movie. I want to go back!”
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