Health And Happines

Virtual reality helping seniors to combat social isolation

AUSTIN (KXAN) — One type of technology being highlighted at South By Southwest this year is virtual reality and not just for gaming.

A couple of Texas and Austin-based companies are using it to keep seniors from getting lonely.

“Many of my team members, including myself, have loved ones in long-term care, and have really seen the negative impacts of social isolation,” said Amod Daherkar, a student at the University of Texas at Austin.

A 2020 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found isolation presents a major risk for premature death, comparable to other risk factors like high blood pressure, smoking or obesity.

Daherkar co-founded WalkThru when he was in high school, a mobile app that streams virtual reality (VR) experiences users can watch through VR headsets.

“A lot of folks love revisiting, you know, childhood locations or places of personal importance, and really being able to virtually travel, so to speak, to locations that they otherwise didn’t think they’d be able to go to,” said Daherkar.

WalkThru is one of the finalists at SXSW Pitch, a competition where creators of new, innovative technology present their work.

“We’re providing digital health and happiness to this booming population of older adults,” said Chris Brickler, CEO of another Texas-based virtual reality company, MyndVR.

The technology is being used at Atria at the Arboretum, a retirement community in Austin.

“It enables people, as seniors that can no longer travel as they once did, to travel,” said Sally Stiernberg, a resident who’s tried the virtual reality. “It enables them to go to museums, it enables them to watch plays. There’s just just a myriad of things that it does for you.”

Walter Greenleaf, a Stanford University neuroscientist, is on MyndVR’s advisory board.

“We know the power of VR to help with a whole spectrum of different clinical areas and senior care, helping with mobility problems, helping with pain, helping with isolation and loneliness, helping with issues involving stroke rehabilitation,” he said.

MyndVR is now partnering with another company, HTC VIVE, on the latest iteration of their virtual reality service, MyndConnect, allowing people to experience VR together at the same time.

“We’re connecting now, grandpa that might be in Austin, Texas, with a grandson or daughter in New York City and allowing them to have full connectivity, real time, with our new product called MyndConnect,” Brickler explained.

Pearly Chen, HTC vice president, said as more people become more comfortable with VR, they want to make it more accessible.

“This is not watching a movie together,” she said. “A sensory experience that makes you believe that you’re there. This is really about co-creating memories together as if we’re physically together. That’s not possible today via 2D formats.”

Something Stiernberg hopes to take advantage of.

“I think it’s amazing and incredible what is being done,” she said.

MyndVR and HTC will join a panel discussion entitled VR and Brain Health: a NeuroTech Frontier for Aging at SXSW on Saturday from 10 to 11 a.m. at the Austin Marriott Downtown in the Waterloo Ballroom 3, where they will also be demonstrating MyndConnect.

The Pitch competition featuring WalkThru runs Saturday through Sunday. A winner from each category will be announced during the SXSW Pitch Award Ceremony on Sunday at 6 p.m.

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