Research Institute for Aging
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older adult playing a virtual reality game

Virtual reality’s promising use for older adults

May 10, 2022 | Researchers, Technology

John Munoz, a University of Waterloo engineering postdoctoral fellow, designs video games. Not the kind your grandchildren play, however.

As a member of the Games Institute and the Intelligent Technologies for Wellness and Independent Living lab directed by RIA Research Scientist Jen Boger, Munoz’s research explores physical activity promotion for older adults to rehabilitation games for stroke patients. He designs and co-develops video games that use physiological sensors such as brain-computer interfaces, heart rate monitors, depth cameras, and more.

Munoz recently published study uses a video game technology he’s particularly interested in when it comes to people living with dementia – virtual reality (VR). VR is an artificial and fully immersive experience that imitates the natural world. It uses a screen and headphones in goggles (see photo) that block out outside noise and light, and controllers to hold onto that act as your hands in the virtual environment.

This particular study started pre-pandemic, in 2018, with three Schlegel Villages. The multidisciplinary study involved the University of Waterloo’s Engineering and Health faculties, occupational therapists, recreational therapists, and other exercise professionals.

The research team created VR activities including fishing, rowing, and tai chi in vacation-like settings (think of a sunny beach) based on the input from Schlegel Villages residents, who shared activities they enjoy doing. Schlegel Villages then tested and gave feedback to improve the experience for older adults. Munoz designed it so it could be an individual activity or enjoyed with others. The latter will allow participants to be with others within the game, without even being in the same room.

After the pandemic hit, older adults living in the community participated, playing early versions of the games three times per week for six weeks.

“Our goal was to stimulate people cognitively as well as to help them stay more active,” said Munoz. “Virtual reality offers an immersive and engaging experience without leaving home, and many participants weren’t exercising as much as they did pre-pandemic.”

In a world that has relied heavily on virtual technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic, VR offers a more vivid, life-like experience than a typical virtual exercise class. Meant to complement traditional exercise, these easy-to-use VR games offer convenience and a safe setting to exercise in.

The research team just completed a study with community-dwelling older adults, and although they are still in the early phases of analysis, the researchers noticed improvements in physical activity levels.

“In addition to physical exercise, this study gave us an opportunity to also explore brain functions while using virtual reality,” explained Munoz. “We looked at things like reaction time, memory, and ability to respond to stimulus.”

While this collaboratively designed game focused on people living with dementia and those with mild cognitive impairment, the hope is to expand. “Virtual reality brings a lot of possibilities for exercise promotion and even rehabilitation,” said Munoz. “We’re just scratching the surface of the possibilities.”

The VR game used for community-dwelling older adults, Seas the Day, is freely accessible and everyone with a VR headset at home can download and play it at home by clicking here.

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