UMN museum plans to use VR to increase accessibility for the elderly

Research indicates virtual reality can increase the wellness of those living in senior care facilities.

Crystal Compton, a wearable technology Ph.D. student,  demonstrates a virtual reality headset at the Goldstein Museum of Design in Saint Paul on Friday, Jan. 18. The museum is bringing the exhibits outside their walls by making virtual exhibits available to communities who may not be able to visit the site in person.

Courtney Deutz

Crystal Compton, a wearable technology Ph.D. student,  demonstrates a virtual reality headset at the Goldstein Museum of Design in Saint Paul on Friday, Jan. 18. The museum is bringing the exhibits outside their walls by making virtual exhibits available to communities who may not be able to visit the site in person.

Helen Sabrowsky

University of Minnesota researchers aim to bring virtual reality experiences to people living in senior care facilities, expanding the accessibility of museum exhibits and exploring possibilities of the technology. 

Faculty in the College of Design and the Goldstein Museum will use the project to study how digital experiences might increase the well-being of individuals in care facilities. Research indicates that those living in senior care facilities feel happier, more relaxed and more positive when using virtual reality. 

While the project is in preliminary stages, two Goldstein Museum exhibits  — Storied Lives and Demonstration Garden — have already been captured on 360 degree video with the help of Chuck Olsen, co-founder and CEO of the virtual reality company Visual, Inc. This semester, the team will begin organizing how to best deliver the videos to those living in the Episcopal Homes senior living communities located in St. Paul.

Olsen said that in his past experience, seniors have responded well to virtual reality videos. 

“We’re used to seeing video in some kind of rectangle. Whether it’s your TV or a phone or a movie screen, [but] VR … completely immerses you, so there is no longer a rectangle. Everywhere you look, you’re in this ‘other’ type of experience.”

Faculty will measure how well seniors respond to the experience, said Goldstein Museum Director Lin Nelson-Mayson.

“It became an interesting idea to use the exhibitions here as a starting point to introduce … the technology to people that aren’t comfortable with the technology,” Nelson-Mayson said. “[And] how do you make the things that we do here at the U accessible to people that perhaps physically can’t come here and experience them?”

She said some older museum attendees miss exhibits due to limited mobility. Virtual reality makes the experience more accessible, allowing the team to capture temporary exhibits in 3D and bring the videos to many locations on five headsets.

“VR is a way to bring the world to [people] when they can no longer go out and see the world,” Olsen said. 

Through analysis, researchers aim to find best practices on how to develop digital experiences, said Genell Ebbini, a faculty member with the project. 

The team wants the experience of virtual reality videos to be like a book club — once seniors go through the videos, they can share the experience and how they feel about it, Ebbini said. 

Faculty members are developing a discussion guide to inform conversations after seniors use the virtual reality technology. Following the video with a discussion will make the experience community-oriented, said Marilyn Bruin, a professor of housing studies and member of the project. 

Isolation can be a concern in senior housing, Bruins said, but activities like the virtual reality project build community while serving as a learning and cultural experience. Bruins said the team aims to expand on the project to reach other communities in the future. This semester, the team will begin to deliver the first videos to the Episcopal Homes and seek funding to continue its work.

“Our research is richer when we work with each other. … I think our research will be richer when the public becomes a part of the research,” Bruins said. “It is an opportunity to bring people together across the University and the community, and I think that’s important and I think it should be important for the University.”