Alcove VR
Image Credit: AARP Innovation Lab

Alcove is a new game and platform from AARP Innovation Labs that is launching today on Oculus Quest for free. Developed specifically to help those 50 and up to avoid social isolation and enjoy virtual reality, it gives families a chance to bond through VR. There are also some great workouts for both your body and mind included with unlimited potential for additional experiences to be added through the Alcove Playground.

VR Fitness Insider had the chance to learn more about the application coming out today by interviewing product lead Cezara Windrem. Check out highlights from our talk below.

VRFI: I was curious how the idea for Alcove came to be as we don’t see many VR titles meant for those 50 and up. What made the AARP want to invest in virtual reality and see that as a viable platform?

Cezara Windrem: Alcove is indeed the first family-oriented virtual reality application out there, even more so to be launched on Quest, which is extremely exciting. The reality is the AARP has been in this space for the longest time and looking at issues around social connection and particularly the social isolation. [They’re] impactful issues around the world that had been going on for the longest time now only to have been exacerbated lately with social distancing in place.

Alcove VR
Image Credit: AARP Innovation Lab

In normal times, one in five Americans is being impacted by social isolation today. Those numbers are most likely going even higher. So with that background at the AARP and the AARP Innovation Labs, we’ve been looking for innovative solutions on connecting people, connecting people across generations, and focusing on that intergenerational connection. Through a lot of our studies over the years, we’ve learned that people want to stay in touch even more so when they’re physically apart. Our world is moving more towards being spread out. Generations don’t live together anymore. And yet, grandparents and grandchildren are in a way more connected today [through technology] … The main thing is that a while back we realized that virtual reality can have a true potential to connect humans at a much deeper level than traditional communication channels.

I grew up halfway across the world from where we are now and my family has been there and I learned first-hand what it’s like to have to depend on video chat and how immersive or not that can be. So when virtual reality came to the scale that it is approaching now, it kind of became a no brainer.

Long story short, once we identified the potential opportunity, we started digging in and looked at tons of studies and research and looked at what the major institutions of the world have been evaluating and what their findings are. We’ve done research in the labs as well. Like we’ve done dozens of focus groups and interviews with users and we tested a million different little things from various headsets to various types of content and how different things make an impact. Through that Alcove came to life and this was just about a couple of years ago when we started getting serious about it.

Typically, the VR audience is seen to be young and tech-savvy. Alcove goes a long way in helping widen that experience. For our audience, can you explain how Alcove helps those new to VR enjoy get used to wearing a headset and enjoying its perks?

One important thing is connecting family members, right? So you have the gamers today. You have people who are well familiar with the medium, and oftentimes we’ve heard a lot from talking with users that there are this need and desire from them to share the love for the new medium with their family members. And oftentimes they don’t really have the right content, and it’s hard to find like if I was gonna share this with my dad, what would I show him?

Alcove, will be primarily, and in the most immediate future, mainly focused on that market, right? You’re in VR today. You know it, you get it, you love it. You want to share the love for virtual reality with your family members. You can now take it and show your parents. We hope that over time the industry expands as Oculus is already working on the next-generation headset, [and] the organic growth that we hope to contribute big time [to helping ease that] struggle for sure.

Being stuck at home for the past half a year, I feel so amazingly grateful to have had my headsets and access to VR.

A major goal is to combat central isolation and bring families together when they’re apart. Can you discuss that goal and what it means to you that you’ve created something so powerful and how fulfilling it is that you’re bringing families together and get to have a positive impact on the lives of others?

That’s what you do when you’re a nonprofit and when you put the mission first. Our mission is and has always been, helping our members connect and the world. Through Alcove we’ve developed not just one game or one standalone app, it’s really an integral wellness approach. When you think about it that kind of overall fitness and wellbeing that cuts across multiple dimensions. Think about that mental fitness that comes from challenging times like where we are today, it’s not even about the older adults, it’s anyone. You know, whether you’re in your 30s or 40s.

I’m just gonna make a parallel quickly, being stuck at home for the past half a year, feel like so amazingly grateful to have had my headsets and access to VR. I feel like through my own Alcove and other apps, like Supernatural, for example, which I’m a huge fan of, I feel like I was living more-so than other people who don’t have access to VR yet. Cezara It’s definitely such a powerful medium.

As I was saying Alcove is not just one thing, it’s not only doing one thing. It’s not only let’s bring people together and hang out. It’s an integral platform that focuses on the togetherness element and that is probably the most important. Spending time with your dear ones, hanging out with them face-to-face almost. Even with our somewhat silly-looking avatar characters, it’s still more embodied, interesting, and more impactful than your traditional video chat, which is just a tiny flat screen you’re looking at.

Alcove provides many mental health benefits

There’s the emotional wellness that comes through this and connecting people, but there’s [also] the activities that you’re doing together. So for example, one of the big things that they focused on has been virtual travel. One thing that we know from many studies that had been done over the years, including from AARP, is that travel itself has proven benefits on health and wellness on humans. But in times like today, we can not travel. I mean, I cannot travel anymore. VR is the closest that we have to get at least close to somehow getting out of the house and getting immersed and experiencing comparable benefits or the most as any other medium could bring us.

In the past MIT has done a study where they compared and analyzed over a period of a couple of weeks, the effects of traveling for virtual reality versus watching documentaries on TV with similar contents. Interestingly enough, they saw [people] highly gravitating towards VR, and showing significantly improved benefits. So that’s one, but then there are the other activities as well. Like brain fitness games. We have two programs here one of them being cognitive gains from our own thing, Staying Sharp digital collection that we’ve built into virtual reality. Staying Sharp, if you’re not familiar with it, is a complete brain health program that addresses all six pillars of brain health, of which we based the gaming element, and this is what we’re bringing into virtual reality with a small collection today, but working to develop that further.

Second, also in the group through one of our startup collaborations with Virtuleap, a startup that you’re probably familiar with. I believe you wrote about them earlier this summer. They’re a brain training VR startup that develops cognitive experiences, Enhance VR being the program, and we are bringing some of their experiences into Alcove as well. Then there’s the mental wellness and the meditation-inspired experiences.

VR is used a lot for rehabilitation, so what sort of exercises and what sort of physical fitness programs are there in Alcove?

At this time it’s a small set of them. The focus is more on the overall wellbeing and in the integral wellness approach to saying where the brain games are more prevalent than the physical exercises. What they currently have is from the AARP library. There’s a seated experience that you can do while sitting outside on your virtual porch on your virtual couch, watching and overlooking the Meadows with the flying butterfly, and do simple seated exercises. This is really a starting point. And from here, we hope to add more and the Alcove Playground is a platform for further connecting with startups and creators.

An innovative follow mode allows more to play

Our readership is very much on the cutting edge of the way we’re expanding fitness, both physical and mental. I think this will be very appealing to them because they can share that with their parents and help them stay fit mentally, physically, and stay connected with them. So I kinda just wanted to give you the floor to talk about any selling points you might think would appeal to our readership.

I think the biggest one and the most unique that Alcove brings is the lead and follow experience. When you’re in multiplayer, if you and I go into together into Alcove, we would see an option and you could follow me or I could take the lead or the other way around. Pretty much you could put your controller down and I will take you places. Not only I can give you a full tour of the virtual house and show you everything there is to do and all the different rooms, but I can pop you into experiences with me so we can go travel the world together. I can turn on the TV and show you content, and we can talk about that. We can pop into 360 experiences together.

That’s probably one of the most exciting things because if you put on a headset on your cousin tomorrow who maybe has never been in VR, you can skip all the steps of, “Oh, let me, let me show you with buttons. And let me show you how [to do] all this.” You can just not worry about any of that and take the lead and give her the full experience herself. Probably by the time you’re done, she’s going to be like, “I got it from here. I love it.” It’s also one of those things that for an elderly family member will come extremely handy, right? There’s the potential that your elderly grandmother might not even have the ability to maneuver them in the menu and use buttons. Even if we did enable hand tracking, hand tracking from Oculus it’s wonderful, but it’s still early on. It takes a bit of a learning curve. So through this follow mode, you can skip all that and that’s wonderful.