How a Virtual Reality Forest Helps Alzheimer’s Patients

Mark Huntsman
By Mark HuntsmanApril 3, 2014

Interactive video game technology is being developed to improve the quality of life for people living with dementia, and a new crowdfunding project aims to raise $90,000 to help bring this tranquil virtual environment to aged care facilities around the world.

As any caretaker of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia can attest, the disease robs people of their ability to engage in the world around them. In a very real, tangible sense, it deprives those who suffer from it the capacity to connect with life.

But what about a virtual world? Gaming technology has advanced to the point that it’s possible to create a digital world that’s not only rich in detail but interactive and accessible to everyone. Remarkably, Alzheimer’s Australia Vic—a nonprofit society in Victoria, Australia created by and for caretakers—has partnered with the innovative game designers at Opaque Multimedia to create and implement a virtual reality world that’s designed to provide suffers of dementia with a beautiful, soothing, and engaging experience.

The Benefits of Sensory Therapy

The Forest Project uses video game technology—specifically, Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensing cameras together with the power of the Unreal Engine 4 gaming engine—to create a sensory therapy application. As its name suggests, “sensory therapy” aims to engage the senses in relaxing, novel activity that prevents idleness and boredom. But how will the virtual Forest Project help Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers to take part in sensory therapy?

Butterflies flitting by before you. Sunlight filtering through the trees. Snow fluttering to the ground in a gentle breeze. This virtual reality is a place that is like the setting of a happy children’s tale—peaceful and happy. But it’s also alive around you, and responds directly to your movement and motions. For someone with dementia, it offers the possibility of experiencing fascination and even joy.

“It was just awesome to watch her,” says Dr. Tanya Petrovich of Alzheimer’s Australia Victoria, speaking to about her experience observing one patient’s engagement with the virtual reality application during a trial at an aged-care facility. “She’s normally non-verbal. She saw this virtual butterfly flying across the virtual forest, and she’s able to move her arms and create things, or make things happen. She just lit up. She started communicating, and that’s just priceless.”

How You Can Help

Alzheimer’s Australia and Opaque Media have until May 16th, 2014 to raise enough money to meet or exceed their $90,000 goal. If they do, how will that money be used? In short, to make what’s currently a project in development into a sensory therapy reality for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers the world over.

As the team notes on their project page, “With your support we can convert this game from prototype to reality with interactions, greatly increased fidelity, the types of environment, experiences.”

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