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A New VR Experience Could Help Isolated Elders Reconnect

With the help of one Boston-based startup, elders suffering from dementia or isolation could attend a concert or even sit atop Mount Everest without ever leaving their homes.

Rendever, founded by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan Business School, aims to fight isolation and cognitive issues encountered in old age by allowing users to view or describe entertaining virtual-reality experiences.

The company offers VR content created both in-house and by third parties which falls under educational, cultural or personalized themes. Educational experiences may involve a virtual museum visit, while cultural experiences may allow users to sit at a baseball game, attend a concert or view vacation spots. A personalized experience could also involve showing a user a photo from their past through the VR equipment.

After being awarded the $25,000 grand prize at the Sloan Healthcare and Bioinnovation pitch contest, two of the three founders — CEO Dennis Lally and COO Reed Hayes, said they came across the idea following personal experiences with older relatives. Lally and Hayes said they met at MIT and later co-founded Rendever with engineer Tom Neumann.

“Reed had some personal experience with family members struggling with the aging process, specifically he had an uncle and his mother in-law struggled with dementia,” Lally explained in a later interview. “Despite the social environments, education and stimulation that the community tried to offer, she struggled specifically with issues of isolation and depression.”

The co-founders realized that virtual reality was the “perfect platform” to help those with cognitive reconnect to their environment. “It provides an unmatched feeling of presence. It’s the difference between watching a football game on TV and actually going to a football game,” he expanded.

With Rendever’s software, caregivers can also oppositely view a VR experience, such as a concert, through the blurred vision of someone with dementia or age-related ailments.

“It really helps create a form of empathy so that caregivers better understand what their recipients are going through. We’re talking to some leading training companies that are focused on employee training — specifically for dementia care — about creating more immersive applications of employee training as well,” Lally said.

Rendever began testing the product more than a year and a half ago in nursing home facilities throughout the Greater-Boston area, according to Lally. However, the gear and content subscription is also available to purchase from Rendever for home use.

“We went from idea to user-testing pretty quickly. We’ve learned a lot along the way. The product has actually changed a lot in terms of the software and the way we utilize the hardware. But we spent a lot of time with older adults to get where we are today, and we know there’s still a long road ahead,” Lally said.

While Rendever has primarily run programs on the Samsung Gear VR, Lally noted its experiences are compatible with headsets including the Google Daydream, Oculus and the HTC Vibe.

The team focused on Samsung when they realized that mobile VR headsets without heavy weight or wires would be best for eldery users. Because older users faced issues with VR navigation, the company developed further software that allows a user, loved-one or caregiver to control the experience with a separate tablet.

“The road of a startup is a long and challenging journey,” Lally said. “One challenge that we typically face is people’s skepticism about older adults’ willingness to adopt the product … Once people see their reactions and the response as we’re using it, it becomes pretty apparent that there’s a clear benefit and a reason that they can and should be using it.”

While further researching and tweaking the product, Rendever will continue fundraising in order to grow its team in the areas of content and product development.

“We really want to prove that there are potential clinical outcomes that we can help address with our product.”

When discussing future plans, Lally added, “We think there’s a big opportunity with cognitive behavioral therapy as well as physical therapy.” He described that cognitive therapy may involve experiences which ask the user to explain where they are, whereas physical-therapy experiences may encourages users to make head or neck stretching movements that they have issues with. With the help of Harvard experts, Rendever is also researching the effectiveness of “reminiscence therapy,” where a user with memory loss could be asked to describe an image or a video from their past.

“We’re focused on taking VR and making it accessible to the people we believe could benefit from it the most,” he concluded.

Pamela Bump

Pamela Bump

    Pamela Bump is a candidate for the Master of Science in Media Ventures at Boston University. After receiving a B.A. for a dual major in Journalism and Communication Studies from Keene State College in 2014, she became the Web Editor and Social Media Expert at Taste for Life Magazine, an alternative health publication. She then served as Copy Editor at The Keene Sentinel, a daily newspaper in Keene, N.H. While editing daily city news and designing pages for print, she also managed, edited, and contributed to a weekly health section.As a Media Ventures student with a passion for health journalism, Pamela hopes to use her time at MedTech to expand storytelling skills, while learning about leadership and innovation in the media-startup industry.

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