Engaging Older Adults in Virtual Reality Research

Ageing and avatars

How might Virtual Reality (VR) contribute to the wellbeing of those living in Residential Aged Care, and how might social VR contribute to the lives of older Australians? These questions are central to two research projects currently being conducted by researchers at the Interaction Design Lab at the School of Computing and Information Systems at the University of Melbourne.

The Ageing and Avatars project, a three-year research effort funded by the Australian Research Council, is examining how VR can support meaningful social interactions between older adults. Twenty-five participants, who we call the Technology Explorers, have spent the last year engaging with different VR technologies and questioning how VR might be useful in engaging older adults in rich social experiences. This engagement has resulted in the Technology Explorers, in partnership with a team of researchers from the Interaction Design Lab, co-designing a social VR environment called the Highway of Life. The Highway of Life will allow older adults to gather together in a virtual environment to discuss, share memories and stories about pivotal moments in their lives.

The Technology Explorers are also playing a lead role in developing 3D avatars, humanoid characters that they will embody in the virtual world that will respond to the aesthetic preferences of older users. This work will culminate in an extended field trial where the Technology Explorers will test and improve the Highway of Life virtual environment, beginning in early 2018.

A second pilot study, Active-VR for Engaging Older Adults in Residential Aged Care, has recently been completed in partnership with BlueCross, a leading provider of aged care services.

Researchers from the Interaction Design Lab spent two weeks in a BlueCross aged care centre in Mill Park introducing staff and residents to an Oculus Rift VR system. The technology allowed them to test multiple virtual worlds and use hand controllers to engage with, and manipulate, virtual objects.

Early results from this project highlight the heterogeneous interests of aged care residents and, in particular, the ability of VR to connect with residents for whom traditional aged care activities held little interest. Though only a small pilot study, results also challenge the view that VR is necessarily a positive tool for engaging residents with dementia.

If you are interested in learning more about these projects, please contact Steven Baker: steven.baker@unimelb.edu.au.

[Source: Dr Steven Baker, Research Fellow at the Microsoft Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces, Melbourne School of Computing and Information Systems, University of Melbourne]