If you think elderly residents of the Westhill Retirement Residence are playing BINGO or taking field trips to the mall, you might be surprised to find out that recently they were able to visit the beach, fly through outer space, and use a light saber to slice blocks.
Situated on a quiet cul-de-sac in Waterloo, Ontario, the retirement home might seem like the last place you’d find virtual reality, a technology that allows users to put on a headset and feel like they’re completely immersed in virtual worlds.
When staff members from Ctrl V, a VR arcade with locations throughout North America, introduced Westhill residents to virtual reality, they readily embraced the concept.
Their reactions didn’t surprise Arturo Salek, Ctrl V marketing manager. He had come up with the idea to visit retirement homes after he had seen how many older adults were coming to the Ctrl V arcades with their grandchildren. Not only were they bringing them, but they were also trying VR and enjoying the experience so Salek decided to introduce the technology to other elderly residents of Waterloo.
“The novelty of VR is incredible for them because they have lived lives before the internet and, in some cases, before TV,” states Salek. “Yet when they’re inside the virtual world, the motions become intuitive because it’s just like interacting in 3D space.”
Virtual reality has many benefits for people of all ages and it can definitely be part of a healthier lifestyle for middle aged or older adults.
“Some of the advantages of VR are that you can use different experiences to foster creativity, conquer fears, improve cognitive function, and test hand-eye coordination, but in ways that are completely immersive and gamified,” explains Salek.
In addition to the fact that virtual reality stimulates the brain, it also encourages use of fine and gross motor skills. In many cases, when someone is playing games in virtual reality, they’re actually making motions similar to those used in physical or occupational therapy. When they’re in the immersive environments of VR, however, they’re more likely to become engaged in the activity and participate for longer periods.
Any time there’s a healthy, affordable, accessible option available, people of any age are more likely to take advantage of it. With newer headsets such as the Oculus Quest, even older adults who have had no experience with technology can slide on the stand-alone headset and reap the benefits of VR.
“The advantage virtual reality has for elderly populations specifically is the accessibility that it provides for them,” states Salek. “They can experience virtual worlds while seated, meaning they are not restrained by mobility.”
Games and experiences that can be played seated include Beat Saber, Crytek’s The Climb, and Google Earth. For residents who want to rip limbs off rogue robots, they might enjoy Epic Games’ Robo Recall. They also have the option to shoot zombies that have taken over a western town in Oculus Studios’ Dead and Buried or experience the thrill of being a deadly overt operative in nDream’s Phantom: Covert Ops, due to be released later this year. Phantom: Covert Ops is actually a stealth action game that was designed as a seated experience so players have the sense that they’re right at home in the tactical kayak as they weave through hostile territory and try to neutralize the enemy threat.
While all those games can be played seated, Salek says there is a need for more.
“Ctrl V is in a unique position because we interact directly with the customers,” he explains, “and we want to show that there is a need for content to be created for the older generation.”
He goes on to state that no matter how unfamiliar someone is with technology, there are some experiences, such as Nature Treks VR, that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of age.
“Nature Treks VR is an experiential game where you can explore tropical beaches, underwater oceans, or even take to the stars,” he states, adding that the game “is alive with animals, birds and other life.”
Bridging the Generation Gap
Fortunately, the advantages of virtual reality transcend age and it’s a medium that has the ability to bridge the generation gap in ways that haven’t been possible with other technology.
Salek points out that the winners of their Ctrl V dodgeball tournament last year were ages 7, 8, and 9. Lest you’re tempted to think that they had a much greater advantage due to their youth, we should also note that VR tends to level the playing field because there’s an innate balance taking place in VR games. While younger people might have faster reflexes, for example, older users tend to make strategic decisions, oftentimes have the advantage of patience, and they know how to incorporate teamwork in multiplayer games. Both young and old users can easily navigate immersive environments and then find ways to adapt to the games within their own abilities.
This type of inter-generational activity would never be possible in a traditional sport, but since they have the option to play virtual reality seated and they can adapt find ways to defeat their younger, more agile opponents, even competing in VR esports is an option for older people. In fact, one man who plays Downpour Interactive’s Onward is 82-years-old and during the VR League Season 3, one competitor was 53-years-old. While that’s not quite near retirement age, it’s impressive that he can compete with younger individuals half his age.
Older people can reap substantial benefits from the physical activity encouraged in immersive environments, whether that’s interactive games, virtual tours, or educational experiences. If they participate in multiplayer games, they have the added benefit of social interaction. And of course virtual reality can be fun and therapeutic for everyone, but for people who struggle most with mobility, it can also help them regain a sense of freedom.
Although VR has become more accessible to the average consumer and more older adults are beginning to use the technology, we haven’t quite reached the point where VR competitions will replace BINGO games or chess competitions. Considering the fact that most older adults have extremely positive reactions to the technology, however, it’s not an unlikely scenario for the future.
Meanwhile, Ctrl V is committed to sharing virtual reality with older residents of Waterloo and beyond through their Elderly Appreciation Campaign. They’ll continue to go into retirement homes and host portable demos free of charge in an effort to introduce virtual reality to people who still have memories of a world where VR would’ve seemed like science fiction.