Late in her life, when she was living in a senior’s home, my grandmother developed a thing for the iPhone. She was not a technical whiz by any stretch of the imagination. At various points, my parents had previously tried to bridge the distance between Canada and Ohio with email, but it never took. Why should it have, really? Each new device was wholly foreign. But the iPhone was different; she could just swipe through images transfixed by memories that had slipped away.
I bring this up because NPR reports that the elderly are one of the new target audiences for virtual reality, and tech media does not have a great history of recognizing audiences that aren’t young (and male). In short, Dr. Sonya Kim has developed Aloha VR, which functions “as a way to help people relax, an alternative to endlessly watching TV and a change of scenery for those who can’t get out much.” The story continues:
And for those unhappy in the present day, virtual reality might provide an escape into an immersive other world that “allows them to forget their chronic pain, anxiety, the fact that they are alone,” Kim says. In VR, she says, her company has found “a new care modality to bring to a senior care setting like this, to inspire them to live another day, where they’re happy.”
There is, the NPR article notes, some evidence that suggests that VR can reduce pain in seniors. In limited studies, it has also shown promise in dealing with stress.
you can still have an interesting experience without spinning about
As with the example of the iPhone, some interfaces are better for the elderly than others. Things where you can swipe, for instance, tend to do well. Things with lots of buttons, less so. The conventions of virtual reality, NPR’s Kara Platoni notes, “assume that the user knows to swivel his or her head to take in the 360-degree view, to move around to make the landscape scroll, or to tap objects to interact with them.” This, at face value, is not great for the elderly. But Aloha VR isn’t a high-action game, and that’s where VR is flexible: you can still have an interesting experience without spinning about.
At present, virtual reality is both a technical and marketing challenge. The two are interrelated. Not every use can be developed at once, so development tends to target an imaginary user who exists for marketing purposes. This, in a nutshell, is how most new technology comes to be aimed at young (male) consumers. The sad part of this tendency, in which media is often complicit, is that there can often be more interesting groups to discuss.
In the early days of mobile apps, for instance, new mothers were a major force in downloading apps because it provided a connection to the outside world, but that story was largely overlooked. The same could easily happen with VR, which would be a shame because it’s not even obvious that the best use cases are games or other interactive projects aimed at imaginary twenty-somethings. The best uses of VR may, for instance, target old people, and that wouldn’t be a tragedy.