Can Virtual Reality Improve the Aging Process?

Written By: Maria Doyle
  • 12/21/2016

Will virtual reality’s future be confined to gaming, or are there other real-world applications that with propel the technology forward?

Deloitte Global predicts that virtual reality (VR) will end 2016 with its first billion dollar year, with the vast majority of commercial activity focused on video games. Yet, Fortune’s 2017 Crystal Ball feature warns of virtual reality glitches in 2017, “unless software makers can come up with a true raison d’être—and soon.”

I recently interviewed Rendever co-founders Dennis Lally and Reed Hayes, two graduate students at the MIT Sloan School of Management who participated in MIT’s delta v accelerator program. They are focused on making virtual reality a game changer in the lives of senior citizens.

Help us to understand your vision for Rendever.

Reed: We're building a digital health company that looks to improve the aging process for millions of Americans, and people across the world. Rendever is a virtual reality platform built for older adults to provide cognitive stimulation, socialization and therapeutic virtual experiences.

It was a family member of yours that sparked the idea, Reed? Can you talk a little bit about that?

: Yes, I've had several family members living in assisted living communities throughout my life, starting when I was five years old with my grandmother, then at 22 years old, my mother-in-law. Every time I'd go into these communities, I just saw how depressing the environment can be and how no one was smiling, no one was talking. There was no stimulation. It more or less felt like an older adult prison where people were just playing a game of waiting.

Seeing that environment, and then the parallels of how technology was being used to connect people throughout the world, I knew that there could be a bridge built between some cutting-edge technology to help connect and improve the quality of life of older adults and this population.

What is so interesting is when you see videos of the Rendever system being used, you see these people smiling with happy tears rolling down their faces. You can really tell it moved them, and it brings some happiness to them.

Targeting an older population is something that most people probably hadn't thought of with virtual reality. Is Rendever one of the first companies to pair VR with senior citizens?

Reed: If you look on YouTube, you can see that kids who have VR tried it out with their grandparents, and they got some pretty great reactions. But, as far as commercializing it, yes, we are the first to do so.
Our presentation at MIT’s delta v Demo Day gets into more detail about our plans for Rendever and how we can help the older population.

What technology elements are you using?

Dennis: We've built a combination of technology to actually enable virtual reality for this population. The first component is off-the-shelf hardware, the Samsung Gear VR as well as the Samsung tablets. And we've created what's called tablet controls. That allows a single user to control the headset of many, using our virtual reality application on smart phones.

So, this will take virtual reality from what is normally an isolating experience to a social environment and a social experience, which is much more powerful. We created tablet controls and group syncing reality that allows us to sync as many headsets as we want to the same content, allowing the social experience.

Reed: We're also the team that helped create or convert Google Street View panoramas into virtual reality. So, we can take essentially any 360-degree panorama and allow that to be displayed in virtual reality. And so, effectively what we've built is a way for older adults to travel almost anywhere in the world that Google has been, from the top of Mount Everest to their childhood home.

What type of content is available?

On the content front, it's a mix. We have partnerships where content creators will put their content on our platform, and we act as a distribution arm. We've also created our own content and continue to do so. These include, cultural experiences, historical tours, immersive documentaries, personal family events and therapeutic content to name a few..

How can Rendever be used therapeutically?

Dennis: We're working with a multiple healthcare providers and academic researchers to create, for example, music therapy with visualization components, which is extremely relevant for the older adult population. Additionally, VR has been proven to help with depression, isolation and has show promise addressing symptoms of cognitive impairment. We're focused on applications to address most major ailments older adults face today.

Can you explain the custom content piece a bit more? How can someone join a family reunion or a wedding through virtual reality?

Dennis: Effectively, we are creating a Web platform that allows families to upload those important moments, and also to help facilitate in the capture of those moments with a 360-degree camera. Families will upload the moment that they want to share with their loved ones into a Web platform.

It’s essentially a 360-degree video that they'd be watching with surround sound. The older adult would put on a headset, and then wherever they're looking is where the camera was recording, providing a sense of immersion in which it truly does feel like you're there.

Reed: We've seen some pretty wonderful reactions to the 360-degree content from the older adults. And they were saying, "Hey, I feel like I'm here." The smiles on their faces say everything.

Describe the reactions from the residents at senior living facilities.

Reed: It's honestly been some of the most powerful reactions I've ever seen technology bring to any demographic. There have been incredibly powerful emotions evoked when someone goes back and sees their childhood home that they haven't seen in 50 years and thought they'd never get to see again, or maybe it's a “bucket list” item – say they’ve always wanted to go to the Grand Canyon but never got the chance, and they had long lost hope of ever being able to see it. When we show them it, and stereoscopic 360 degrees, and they feel like they're actually there. I mean it is so incredible.

And when you consider this population they are pretty underserved in the sense that physically they can't go do things anymore. They're stuck in the building. When you give them a wonderful window of hope in this stimulation, you can imagine it can have a pretty powerful reaction to them.

What about the staff?

Dennis: We found that it's actually a great tool to help bridge the gap that often exists between residents and staff. A lot of times, there's a disconnect. Maybe the staff doesn't know about the residents' history, or a lot of times the residents face issues of agitation and anxiety.

We're designing studies that say, if we can actually reduce those effects for older adults, how does that affect the employees and the staff? There’s a huge difference between dealing with someone who's happy versus dealing with someone who's agitated night and day. In fact, turnover rates are 40 to 60 percent for certified nurses in these communities, and that's a huge problem. If we can make people happier in their jobs, we might be able to reduce that.

What’s your business model? Are you selling these systems into the nursing homes? Are they passing on those costs to the residents, or is it just part of their fixed costs of running a higher end assisted living facility?

Dennis: We offer our services to the actual communities, who then provide it to their residents. And that's really up to them whether or not they want to pass on the costs. We feel from talking to these communities that they're looking for technologies and ways to differentiate their community from the community down the street. This is a great platform to do just that.

Where do you hope to be in five years and what are your next steps?

Dennis: Our grand vision is to be in every long-term care community and reaching many of the people who are living at home to help them reconnect with the world through cognitive stimulation, lifelong learning and group experiences. We’re constantly looking for strategic partners and innovative organizations looking to have an impact on this older demographic.

Editor’s Note: PTC also has big plans for augmented reality (AR), an offshoot of virtual reality where a view of a physical, real-world environment is augmented by computer-generated sensory input. With its Vuforia augmented reality platform and ThingWorx Studio for the Industrial Enterprise, PTC envisions many AR applications beyond the realm of gaming. These immersive AR experiences will transform the way users create, operate, and service products.

Image courtesy of Rendever

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About the Author

Maria Doyle

Maria Doyle is an independent communications consultant in the Boston area. She helps high tech companies with their writing, especially making complex topics more easily understood. Some of the topics she enjoys writing about include engineering and design innovation, customer success stories, and other STEM-related topics. Maria loves the fact that the industry continues to change, which keeps things interesting.