Virtual Reality Could Help Combat Social Isolation in Ageing Population
11 July 2017 at 8:46 am
A new research project is investigating ways virtual reality could help combat social isolation in Australia’s ageing population.
The three year research project, led by researchers from Melbourne University’s Microsoft Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces, explores how technology can enhance social connection and belonging in the ageing population.
Melbourne University research fellow Dr Steven Baker said social isolation in older Australians was increasing due to families being dispersed geographically and issues in mobility for ageing Australians.
Baker said innovation and emerging technologies could help address some of these issues.
“We are primarily interested in creating opportunities for creating meaningful social interactions in a virtual world,” Baker said.
He said creating virtual realities could help older Australians with mobility issues connect with the wider community.
“The idea to explore virtual reality really sprung from previous studies into the use of touchscreen technologies to enhance social connection,” he said.
“But one of the barriers we find time and time again is a reluctance to use social networking sites due to concerns over privacy.”
Baker said the current study, which has 23 participants over the age of 70 called “Technology Explorers”, protected the identity of participants and enabled them to create their own virtual reality avatars.
He said the team had just completed the first stage of the project where participants made their own avatars and participated in the virtual realities across Melbourne University campuses.
“The first stage of the project had participants sitting in different parts of the university and they were all able to interact and have conversations with each other in that virtual environment as the avatars,” he said.
Baker said the next stage of the project was to explore with participants what types of virtual reality environments they could build.
“Our project is about giving people agency and allowing them to move around and make decisions and interact in a virtual world,” he said.
“So we would be looking at exploring what kind of social environments we could build, whether that be playing a game of cards or a book club for example.”
Baker said after a workshop exploring different possibilities, the team had decided to build a virtual reality card game and a “highway of life”.
“In the highway of life, participants will be able to go back in time to explore different time periods and see stories from that time and be able to contribute their own artifacts,” Baker said.
“They will be able to go back with friends and talk about where they were when these big events happened.”
He said the final stage will be testing the virtual reality worlds with the project due to conclude in June 2019.
The project was co-funded by the Australian Research Council and the Microsoft Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces, and the team is working in collaboration with the National Aging Research Initiative and the John Richards Initiative at Latrobe University.