Libraries have long provided specific services to their senior populations, from Music & Memory programs to homebound access. Increasingly, libraries are adopting virtual reality technology into their service model. For libraries in possession of VR hardware, the technology offers an incredible new avenue for serving our senior communities.
A recent article in Wired Magazine described the work of BettVR With Age, which created a series of cinematic virtual reality experiences intended to be used with seniors experiencing impairment to mobility and/or cognition. These films were largely focused on entertainment: museums, concerts, and travel. Loaded onto an Android phone and then placed in a Gear VR, a homebound tester was able to visit a nightclub on the Upper East Side and enjoy a musical performance he could otherwise only dream about. For some time, music has shown to benefit a person’s memory. According to Music & Memory, Inc:
“Even for persons with severe dementia, music can tap deep emotional recall. Favorite music or songs associated with important personal events can trigger memory of lyrics and the experience connected to the music. Beloved music often calms chaotic brain activity and enables the listener to focus on the present moment and regain a connection to others.”
As virtual reality can provide an extremely immersive experience, it is increasingly being viewed as a tool to combat declining memory. While the study of VR technology’s effect on brain chemistry is still young, signs are encouraging. Beyond this application, this technology has the ability to virtually transport a homebound patron to another place they may no longer be able to visit! Rather than simply deliver materials to these patrons, we can grant them a digital avenue to experience the world! So where do libraries come in?
Providing the Hardware:
Virtual reality hardware comes in many forms. There are VR headsets that can piggyback onto a smartphone such as the Samsung Gear for Android, as well as many other options that are iPhone compatible. These could be made available for short or long-term loan. This is a very inexpensive solution, however, there are drawbacks. For starters, the recipient or their caregiver would need to provide their own smartphone. Additionally, VR experiences would need to be downloaded, and in the case of paid content, purchased by the borrower.
More robust solutions including the Occulus Rift and the HTC Vive (as well as an appropriately spec’d computer) can provide the most immersive experience available–at a cost of well over $2,000. Apps can be managed by a library using a cloud-based Steam account. The size and complexity of such systems seem best suited to providing outreach to senior communities, assisted living facilities, and other areas with centralized aged populations. There, libraries can arrange sessions by appointment and have staff available to oversee it all. Another option would be to train a facilities employees and provide equipment on long-term loan.
In a Music & Memory program, the library creates a playlist tailored to the recipient. In a virtual reality setting, we instead need to tailor experiences. Past vacation destinations and favorite public facilities like museums and art galleries are all widely accessible as a virtual reality experience. More often than not, these are also free. For patrons with impaired mobility, Google Earth VR is an incredibly versatile app that can take a person to nearly any destination from the comfort of their home! Whether using the aforementioned Steam account to oversee a library of content or providing a new form of VR advisory for patrons downloading their own apps, the library can and should stand ready to assist.
Too often, we fall into the trap of tying youth to technology. As our libraries continue to explore the possibilities of virtual reality, and emerging technologies more broadly, let us ensure that we do not forget our senior citizens!
Pilon, Mary. “For Senior Citizens, the Future of VR Lies in the Past.” Wired. June 02, 2017. Accessed July 11, 2017. https://www.wired.com/2017/04/vr-for-seniors/.
 “Brain-Music Connection.” Music and Memory. Accessed July 11, 2017. https://musicandmemory.org/about/brain-music-connection/.
 Wolpert, Stuart. “Brain’s reaction to virtual reality should prompt further study, suggests new research by UCLA neuroscientists.” UCLA Newsroom. November 24, 2014. Accessed July 11, 2017. http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/brains-reaction-to-virtual-reality-should-prompt-further-study-suggests-new-research-by-ucla-neuroscientists.