Can virtual reality help seniors? Study hopes to find out

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Gloria Gantes, right, monitors Terry Colli, a resident of John Knox Village, as he participates in a virtual reality study, Tuesday, June 1, 2021, in Pompano Beach, Fla. The senior community is in partnership with Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab on a study to see how older adults respond to virtual reality and whether it can improve their sense of wellbeing. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

POMPANO BEACH, Fla. – Terry Colli and three other residents of the John Knox Village senior community got a trip via computer to the International Space Station in the kickoff to a Stanford University study on whether virtual reality can improve the emotional well-being of older people.

Donning 1-pound (470-gram) headsets with video and sound, the four could imagine floating weightless with astronauts and get a 360-degree tour of the station. In other programs, residents can take virtual visits to Paris, Venice, Egypt or elsewhere around the globe; attend a car rally, skydive or go on a hike.

“I feel great. It is amazing. It is like you are really there,” said Colli, 73, and a former spokesman for the Canadian embassy in Washington.

Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab will be working with John Knox's 1,200 residents, who will have ready access to the equipment under the supervision of staff members. The goal is to see whether virtual reality can improve their mood, strengthen their relationships with staff and make them more receptive to technology. Other senior communities in the United States and elsewhere will soon be added by the California university.

Virtual reality works by making what the person sees and hears track with what they are doing. In a VR trip to Paris, for example, a participant might turn to the left and see the Eiffel Tower with a musician playing in the foreground, and then turn right and find two people conversing. If the participant moves toward one, that sound increases while the other diminishes.

“There is a fair amount of previously published research by academic labs around the world that shows VR, when administered properly, can help reduce anxiety, improve mood, and reduce pain,” said Jeremy Bailenson, the Stanford lab’s founding director. “This particular study is focused on how using VR might reduce the residents’ feelings of isolation from the outside world — all the more important after the isolation we all faced during the pandemic.”

During Tuesday’s demonstration at the suburban Fort Lauderdale community, Colli, Anne Selby, 77; Mark Levey, 64; and Hugh Root, 92, moved their heads from left to right and up and down as they got individual tours of the space station.

“It really felt like you were traveling — and not alone either. In some of the video, there are people," said Levey, a former federal government worker.