Some critics believe VR will disconnect us even further from reality than social media already has. But what if you're already disconnected -- for real?

Around a third of people over the age of 65 live alone, and fully half of those 85 or older do. For older people and people with illnesses and mental disorders who suffer from a feeling of profound loneliness, emerging virtual and artificially intelligent technologies provide an avenue to alleviate some of the difficulties that come with living in isolation.

Instead of leaving them alone with nothing to do but stare at the television, imagine being able to help homebound neighbors, parents, or grandparents travel to world heritage sites on their bucket list or revisit their old haunts. That's exactly what students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are doing with VR. Someday, seniors may even be able to attend virtual family events they would otherwise miss.

In this context, VR can be a bridge to a more fulfilling reality, rather than a barrier, while simultaneously providing immersive, enriching experiences.

A Virtual Bridge

The hype surrounding virtual reality may make it seem like nothing but the next generation of digital "toys." As we've often seen, emerging technology tends to be viewed as a plaything at first -- merely another entertaining distraction. Only over time does it prove its worth.

However, that cycle is speeding up, and VR is set to surpass all previous technologies in terms of reach and disruption. While venture capitalist funding in general decreased in 2016, investments in artificial intelligence rose steadily. Why is that?

The elderly market is growing rapidly (given the large Baby Boomer generation), and analysts at Aging in Place Technology Watch project it will grow to $20 billion by 2020. The smartest VR and AI startups are already targeting this market -- besides being good business, it presents an opportunity to actually improve people's lives.

Today, emerging technologies can be leveraged to support our seniors remotely when we can't be with them, allowing them to continue living at home safely while enjoying a sense of contentment, peace of mind, enrichment, fun, and a sense of companionship -- all of which are critical to their physical and mental health.

Practical Applications for Greater Independence

Tech is often considered a young person's game, but these emerging technologies can resolve a lot of practical issues in exciting ways. Here are just a few:

1. Providing Entertainment, Lifestyle Enhancements, and Companionship

We've all witnessed the struggles of assisted living communities. While necessary, the downside is that life within them can seem monotonous and depressing. With the right apps, though, seniors can visit their childhood neighborhoods or immerse themselves in a TV talk show as a virtual member of the studio audience, all from the comfort of their favorite armchair. You can't buy that kind of peace of mind and fulfillment.

Boston-based startup Rendever is testing out technology that allows seniors to go on guided expeditions around the world or even go home again. (Watch the video -- you won't be able to deny VR's incredible power to comfort and inspire seniors.)

Of course, most current VR headsets are bulky, heavy, expensive, and focused on gaming, but they had to start somewhere. To meet the senior market's needs, they will need to get smaller, cheaper, and easier to wear and use.

2. Offering Healthcare Support

AI and telemedicine can remind seniors to take medications, and some robotic companions can dispense what they need exactly when they need it. These devices can also communicate and share information with doctors, children, caregivers, and emergency personnel.

LifePod, for example, is a hands-free device that incorporates Amazon's Alexa voice control and cloud tech into telemedicine and senior care. With it, caregivers can set routines that run automatically throughout the day, and seniors can stay by themselves for longer periods of time.

Those routines might include medication reminders, but they can also involve quizzes, health and nutrition info, games, music, audiobooks, jokes, history and trivia, and social networking. That means that these robots are also social companions for those living on their own. As VR and AI prove, medical-based startups don't have to be boring!

3. Escaping Isolation

Social isolation -- for anyone -- can lead to worsening health. Sadly, growing older often means growing lonelier. Seniors, in particular, often struggle to form social connections, even with those within their age group living at the same facility.

One solution is a robot that could act as a concierge of sorts by reminding seniors of appointments. It could also simulate games, initiate simple dialogue to pull the person out of his or her own head, or suggest a phone call if it notices the senior hasn't spoken to another person in several days.

Another novel solution is a VR platform, similar to "The Sims" series, where participants can meet and communicate with others in avatar form and go on adventures within the platform's virtual world together.

VR isn't just for gamers these days. It's an exciting frontier that can improve the quality of life for the most important people in our lives. Wouldn't you like to make your grandparent's year by taking him or her "home again" and offering enriching virtual armchair traveler experiences? Pretty soon, you'll be able to.

Published on: May 21, 2017