Using Virtual Reality To Walk in the Shoes of Someone With Alzheimer’s

A British nonprofit has launched an app that simulates life with the neurodegenerative disease

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smithsonian.com

Most everyone knows that Alzheimer’s disease means memory loss. But dementia, which affects nearly 50 million people worldwide, is about more than losing your keys or forgetting your children’s names. People living with Alzheimer’s (the most common type of dementia) and related conditions, such as frontotemporal dementia and Lewy body dementia, can suffer symptoms like disorientation, light sensitivity, hallucinations and sudden changes in food preferences.

British nonprofit Alzheimer’s Research UK hopes to help the public understand Alzheimer’s better by putting people in the shoes of someone living with the disease through virtual reality. The organization has just launched an app called A Walk Through Dementia, which talks users through three first-person scenarios depicting life with Alzheimer’s. The app is designed to work on an Android phone, and a user can slip the phone into a specially designed cardboard headset for an immersive experience.

“We’re always looking for interesting and engaging ways to help the public understand the disease,” says Tim Parry, the head of communications at Alzheimer’s Research UK. “[The app] allows you to put the user in the middle of a situation.”

In one of the scenarios, you walk through a grocery store. If you look up, the ceiling lights brighten until they hurt your eyes, a depiction of the light sensitivity many people with dementia face. While you’re turned away, the aisles rearrange themselves, giving you a sense of spatial disorientation. When you finally make it to the checkout aisle, you realize your cart is stuffed with cookies and other junk food. Some dementia patients, especially those with frontotemporal lobe dementia, have sudden and inappropriate shifts in eating behavior. In another scenario, you wander away from your son as he’s helping you home with the groceries, quickly becoming lost in a warren of similar-looking alleys. You scream when you see your son about to step into a giant chasm in the sidewalk. It’s just a puddle, but, to you, black spaces on the floor—shadows, dark rugs, too—look like holes.

“What the app does best for us is demonstrating the other complex symptoms around dementia that people might not realize,” Parry says.

To create the app, Alzheimer’s Research UK turned to Visyon, a technology company specializing in virtual reality. The company worked on the app for some eight months, free of charge, as part of its social mission. The app designers used various technologies to create the scenarios, from animation to 360-degree video to 3D game development tools. With post-production techniques, they edited video in a way that enhanced the feeling of confusion, blurring details and morphing faces. They also, of course, incorporated input from Alzheimer’s patients to help develop the storylines.

“The feedback was quite overwhelming,” says Pere Pérez Ninou, the CEO of Visyon. “People said I can’t believe you were able to represent how we feel.”

Alzheimer’s Research UK launched the app last week at London’s historic St Pancras station, allowing passersby to stop and try out the headsets.

“The reaction we got was really, really positive,” Parry says. “A lot of people came out maybe a bit teary at the end.”

The organization hopes the app will help the public understand and empathize better with sufferers of what’s shaping up to be one of the major public health crises of the 21st century—the number of dementia patients is expected to nearly double every 20 years as the population ages. It also hopes that, perhaps, better understanding will help drive the search for a cure.  

“The use of this sort of technology does lend itself slightly more towards younger people, and they’re going to be the people who are really dealing with the dementia crisis,” Parry says. “Hopefully they’re also going to be the scientists that solve it.” 

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