VR Finds New Niche in Aged Care

Jarrah Cohen at Sydney company NomadVR uses a very different key performance indicator for success. It is how many of their clients have “cried tears of joy” during the week.

Cohen is the chief executive and co-founder of NomadVR. It is a virtual reality start-up that is taking the technology into Sydney's aged care facilities and nursing homes.

“The catalyst for me was visiting my grandfather in the dementia ward of an aged care facility, and seeing what an under stimulating environment he was in,” said Cohen.

“You don’t need long term studies to know that being in a small room with nothing but free to air television and a view of the car park from your window is not very stimulating. Just seeing his cognitive decline once he entered aged care inspired us to focus on aged care specifically.”

Cohen and his co-founder Trent Billington studied three-dimensional animation and video game design. They were also early users of Oculus Rift VR development kits.

Although video game fans, their interest in VR was increasingly focused on non-gaming applications. So, when they were pondering about entering the education sector, their attention was drawn to the aged care sector.

That was around two years ago. Since then, NomadVR has run around 1,000 VR sessions at 20 aged care facilities around Greater Sydney.

Netflix for the Aged

The company is building up a library of content which is suitable for its target audience. Many have lived “big lives” and still have a curiosity about life and an adventurous spirit.

“Our offering is a platform using the Netflix model, and we call it a curated library of VR excursions for the aged care setting,” said Cohen. “That means there is no likelihood of nausea or vertigo. Our content is focused on creating a sense of presence outside of the facility, so we have excursions to peaceful coral reefs or exciting African safaris.”

"There are thousands of VR experiences out there, but only a very small percentage is appropriate for a 95-year-old. So, finding content which suits can be difficult because most users of VR are younger, and they like things like extreme sports of Zombie apocalypse shooting games, which might not be appropriate for aged care," he continued.

Cohen is now adding around five new titles each month to the library.

Pivoting and Evolving

The business model is changing. Initially, the company took the VR equipment into the facilities and ran the sessions themselves. Now, NomadVR is looking to set facilities up with the equipment that the staff can use.

"Our goal is to find the content which works and put it all in one place, so it's a turnkey solution," said Cohen. “We want it to be just as easy for the staff to take residents on virtual excursions as it is to run a bingo session or a word game.”

"And while there is great value in those games for older people, it is still the same rotating roster of activities, and the repetitive nature of the timetable can be monotonous. Whereas with VR, you can have a host of new experiences all the time," he added.

Going back to the "tears of joy" KPI, Cohen cited the story of an elderly man who had left Austria before the Second World War and had never returned.

NomadVR was able to provide a VR excursion to Austria. It enabled the man to see the house he had grown up in, and also the shop he had owned before fleeing from the Nazis.

“We were also able to take a Hungarian lady back to her town,” said Cohen. “The second she had the headset on, she was pointing out local sites, like the school her brother went to.”

"There were tears in her eyes, and she was so thankful. For us, it is powerful to see these people light up when they are able to revisit places that were so important to them," he added.

While Cohen’s grandfather, who was the original inspiration for the company, passed away before he could enjoy VR, Cohen did show it to his grandmother. She, like all the other elderly users, was delighted.

Coming Soon: VR Walkabout

For the future, NomadVR’s business plan is to get VR equipment and its platform of “excursions” into as many aged care facilities and nursing homes in Australia as possible. They are looking to do this either directly or through partnerships.

After Australia, there is the rest of the world to consider as the population ages, and more people find themselves in care in their later years.

“We are getting more interest every day, and people are getting very excited,” said Cohen.