VR has already taken people with dementia to the seaside – and now video games are exploring neurological disease itself


From medical apps to indie games.

Mary is living with dementia at Belmont View, a Quantum Care home in Hertfordshire. Clearly distressed and disoriented, she is carefully led to a comfortable chair by carers. Once she is settled (though still visibly agitated), a virtual reality headset is gently placed onto her head.

“Ooh, look at it,” she immediately says in wonder. Mary is sitting in a virtual beach scene diorama. The effect on her mood is dramatic; before long, she is singing ‘I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside’.

Video games, and related technology such as this VR experience, are being used across the world to supplement treatment for – or better understand – neurological diseases. Neurological diseases are diseases of the brain, spinal cord or nerves, resulting in a wide range of physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been speaking to several people involved in the applications of video game technology to neurological illness, and they have all had a fascinating tale to tell.

Mary is featured in a promotional video for the ImmersiCare experience, alongside other residents who describe it as “fantastic”, and “beautiful”. “It’s always very emotional watching people, because of the happiness it brings,” says Alex Smale, CEO of ImmersiCare. “A few months back, I spent about three and a half hours driving down to Southampton…. Seven hours of driving just for 30 minutes to actually give people the experience. And it was so worth it.”

A typical ImmersiCare session will last 20-25 minutes, during which the patient will experience perhaps three different scenes in VR. (Carers are present throughout, to ensure that the patient is comfortable and not in any way distressed.) “There really isn’t anything that comes close to the level of fulfillment and stimulation that VR brings with such a small amount of stress or difficulty,” Smale explains. In addition to eliminating the stress of physically moving the patient, other scenes that it would be impossible to offer in the real world for reasons of cost or practicality – such as swimming with dolphins, or going into space – are also on offer. The sense of calm that descends during the VR experience can last for the rest of the day, and even into the night. Unsurprisingly, many residents enjoy sessions on a daily basis.

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