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Virtual reality helps home-bound seniors enjoy the outdoors

Seven-week Stanford study at Avenidas transports residents to other worlds

Bill Frye, 96, may be in a wheelchair, but on April 22, he was still rotating his bike pedals through the Balinese forest. As he pedaled faster, chickens darted from the underbrush across his path, and he felt the wind against his face.

"It was magnificent," said Frye, who has not been able to ride a bike for some time.

The trip to Bali — and the bike ride — actually took place within the confines of the Avenidas senior center in Palo Alto. It is part of a study by Stanford University engineering students to create outdoor virtual-reality experiences for seniors who are confined at home. The project lets seniors experience the virtual outdoors through a technology called SUSIE — Senior-User Soothing Immersive Experience. Changes in temperature, wind, sound and light are synchronized with large-screen projections of simulated walks and bike rides through forests, beaches, nature reserves, suburban parks and other pleasing environments.

The seven-week study is going on at Avenidas through May 20. Seniors can drop in for an experience on Tuesdays from 10:30 a.m. to about 1 p.m.

The program employs videos previously used for screens on treadmills. The enlarged footage, encompassing a normal field of vision, is projected onto a wall. Study participants can take a stroll down a sandy Australian beach, a walk in an urban Singapore park, bike rides in the Philippines and Balinese forests and hikes in national parks.

The videos are synchronized with a variety of realistic sensory embellishments: speeding along as one pedals faster or slower; the feel of pedals working harder as one climbs uphill; fan-generated wind that increases in concert with movement; lighting that reflects the dappling of sun through trees or the pink glow of a brilliant sunset.

A heat lamp brings a warm day at the beach indoors as crashing waves and the cries of seagulls fill the room with sounds from the sea.

Virtual environments can help reduce depression, said Kelly Lowen, a Stanford mechanical engineering graduate student who is on the SUSIE team. They improve quality of life for persons who are confined indoors due to physical, mental or weather conditions, she said. While visiting care facilities, the team noticed that residents who could roam freely in outdoor spaces were more positive about life. But patients who resided in facilities without outdoor environments became depressed, she said. Although they represent only 13 percent of the population, seniors account for 20 percent of all suicides in the U.S., she added.

"Depression affects nearly 15 percent of the elderly population," she said. "In many cases, depression is not recognized or treated, so this number is likely much greater. This seemingly subtle issue has significant impact. It has been linked by the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation to dementia, stroke, cancer and other illness."

Distracting seniors through fun activities was among the most effective solutions Lowen saw for depression within the senior facilities. The success of minimizing depression was related to the quality of the distractions, she said. The best way to address depression would be to restore independence and bring back lost hobbies, the team concluded. Walking is a popular hobby for many seniors, she said.

"Seniors often use walks as a way to engage socially with friends and family. Unfortunately, for many seniors this hobby is not available. Many Americans experience extremely rainy or snowy weather that confines them indoors," she said.

Frye, a retired physicist, had biked to his job at Lockheed Research Lab on a daily basis for 35 years, and he misses those rides, he said. The SUSIE experience allowed him to feel the joy of riding again.

"I liked the reality of it. It was so big that you really felt you were in it," he said.

He had only one quibble: finding enough large walls to accommodate the projections could be challenging, he said.

The feedback from seniors has been positive, Lowen said. But some said they would like videos where they could feel they are among people, and or in more urban settings.

In the future it could be possible for friends and family to log on and take walks in the virtual outdoors together, said teammate Albert Wu, a material sciences and engineering major. Early on, he looked at developing avatars — digital representations of people — that could walk together. "But that involves a lot of very complicated computer graphics," he said.

Smelling the ocean or the perfume of flowers probably won't be part of the experience, however. Scents could trigger allergies, Lowen said. They also found virtual-reality goggles were too heavy. Some seniors with balance or cognitive issues could become disoriented, she said.

The project prototype will wrap up in June, when the team will hold a demonstration with other student projects.

Panasonic USA is working with the team and pondering all kinds of features and applications, said Jerry Kurtze, Cupertino-based director of new business development and innovation for the company. If the SUSIE project gets the corporate green light, it could become a reality within two to three years, he said.

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