Can a Virtual Reality app really offer a unique glimpse into life with dementia? Alzheimer’s Research UK and University College London think they have cracked it.
The Android-exclusive app, available from the Google Play Store, was developed by Alzheimer’s Research UK and virtual reality production company VISYON, and uses the widely-available Google Cardboard headset to put the public in the shoes of someone with dementia.
Voiced by Dame Harriet Walter, and with an introduction from UK news presenter Jon Snow, A Walk Through Dementia is designed to help the public think beyond memory loss to gain a fully immersive insight into the varied symptoms people with dementia can experience in everyday life.
A Walk Through Dementia is the first time a smartphone Cardboard app has been used to engage the public with the condition. The experience, which can also be viewed headset-free on the app or via the 360 YouTube video below, uses a combination of computer generated environments and 360 degree video sequences to illustrate in powerful detail how even the most everyday task of making a cup of tea can become a challenge for someone with dementia.
Unfolding over three scenarios, the user is tasked with buying ingredients, taking them home and making a cup of tea for their family. A supermarket environment reveals difficulties at the checkout, counting money, reading the shopping list, busy environments and finding items. A second street sequence illustrates problems people with dementia may face with navigation, visual-spatial problems and disorientation. Finally, back at home, making tea for visiting family presents challenges around memorising instructions, visual symptoms and coordination problems.
The app features a compelling voiceover from Olivier Award-winning actress Dame Harriet Walter, who lost both her parents to dementia, and an introduction from broadcaster Jon Snow whose mother died of Alzheimer’s disease – the most common form of dementia.
Developed with the help of people living with dementia, and with support from Prof Sebastian Crutch at UCL’s Dementia Research Centre, A Walk Through Dementia is an innovative, free and unique perspective on a condition that affects 850,000 people in the UK.
Hilary Evans, Chief Executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:
Dementia is commonly misunderstood, so A Walk Through Dementia is designed to offer the public a clearer picture of the challenges that people living with the condition face in everyday life. The app also gives a poignant insight into the emotional impact of symptoms, an element that people with dementia told us was important to achieve. Although each person with dementia experiences the condition differently, and it would be hard to recreate the full range of complex symptoms, harnessing new technology like virtual reality helps us engage people with the impact of dementia on a new level.
Trina Armstrong, who is living with posterior cortical atrophy, a form of Alzheimer’s disease, and advised on the project, said:
Anyone living with dementia will experience it uniquely, but I hope A Walk Through Dementia will provide people with an idea of what the world is like for me. Everyday things like popping to the supermarket or making a cup of tea are things I used to take for granted, but dementia presents a real barrier to my everyday life in ways that people often don’t realise. It’s been empowering for me to feed some of my symptoms and experiences into the app and see them re-created. I hope it will encourage the public to think differently about dementia and the people living with the condition they might meet.
Pere Perez, CEO at VISYON, said:
We were pleased to develop A Walk Through Dementia, which showcases how emerging technologies such as virtual reality can help charities communicate in new and engaging ways. Immersive content formats encourages us to re-think how we tell stories and allows us to place users at the centre of the experience, rather than just watching from the sidelines. With a condition as misunderstood as dementia, the power of this technology to inform and connect with people could really change attitudes.
A Walk Through Dementia is available from the Google Play Store and is designed for use on Android phones. For more on the project, including films and to purchase one of Alzheimer’s Research UK’s cardboard headsets, visit www.awalkthroughdementia.org
The app will be showcased at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK from 7-12 June.