VR app comes to the aid of dementia carers

Software engineers have created an immersive experience to build empathy for carers of people with dementia.

Carers and families of people with dementia can now gain a better understanding of how people with the disease experience the world, thanks to an app developed by Alzheimer’s Australia Vic and researchers from Deakin University’s Software and Technology Innovation Laboratory (DSTIL).

In Australia, around 1.2 million people are involved in the care of a person with dementia and more than 353,800 people live with dementia. With the ageing population, this number is expected to increase to 400,000 within five years.

The Deakin researchers selected Unity, a leading game engine, to develop the immersive experience that can be used on multiple VR platforms, such as Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear VR.

DSTIL Director, Professor Kon Mouzakis said many people are unaware of the broad range of cognitive changes that may be experienced by someone with dementia. These changes have an effect on memory, mood, planning, and problem solving abilities.

For example, people with dementia may have difficulty perceiving surfaces that contain repetitive patterns. These can appear to be moving or have insects walking across them, which can be extremely disorienting and frightening.

By developing innovative ways to raise awareness of these symptoms, Alzheimer’s Australia Vic aims to increase the quality of care provided to people with dementia. In addition to this, the immersive experience passively highlights how changes around the home can significantly improve quality of life.

“The app has broken new ground, particularly as the target audience is typically not a group accustomed to using smartphones and VR,” Professor Mouzakis said.

“This meant we had to spend a significant amount of time experimenting and validating the user experience. For instance, we had to ensure that motion sickness is limited as users move around the VR environment.

“To accurately represent the experience of people with dementia, we also created a high-fidelity environment that looks realistic, with complex lighting, shadows and dementia symptoms that perform well on mobile devices.”

Developed for Alzheimer’s Australia Vic, the app is called EDIE – Educational Dementia Immersive Experience (pronounced Eddie).

“EDIE provides the user with a 360-degree immersive experience,” said Ms Maree McCabe, Acting National CEO, Alzheimer’s Australia.

“The interest in virtual reality and the impact of the Virtual Dementia Experience™ cemented our commitment to adapt the learnings into a free mobile app.

“With EDIE, we can take the technology to the carer, both personal and professional, anywhere in the world.”

The app is a teaser for Alzheimer’s Australia Vic’s new “Enabling EDIE” workshops, which will commence in 2017. The DSTIL team is currently finalising a fully immersive experience that will be accessible at Alzheimer’s Australia Vic’s Perc Walkley Dementia Learning Centre in Parkville, Victoria.

The free app is available on iTunes and Google Play, and the EDIE Google Cardboard headsets are available for purchase for $15.00 at Edie, or by calling the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.

The DSTIL team have previously worked with Alzheimer’s Australia Vic to develop an app, called the “Dementia Friendly Home.” This app provides carers with practical suggestions to make the home more accessible for people living with dementia. It is available for iPad from the App Store and Android tablets from the Google Play Store for $2.99.

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