During a lifetime of travel, Gae Jensen has visited all 48 continental states.
On her most recent journeys, the 83-year-old resident of the Ebenezer Care Center in Minneapolis revisited the pleasing sensations of travel without leaving south Minneapolis — she used a virtual reality (VR) headset provided by Ebenezer to visit places from Stonehenge to Minnehaha Falls.
“We used to do a lot of traveling when I was a child, and thankfully, I was married twice and both husbands loved to travel. So this is wonderful,” Jensen said. “It’s a good chance to not only see places, but just — it makes you feel good.”
The Minnesota native and 18-year resident of Ebenezer took part in a VR pilot program earlier this year at the senior living complex, along with two dozen other residents of Fairview Health Services’ south Minneapolis Ebenezer campus. Like the other participants, Jensen reported a sense of contentment that lingered after the VR sessions ended.
The upbeat feedback confirmed the hopes of staff members at Ebenezer about benefits of using VR to address the effects of anxiety, depression and other states common to residents of senior-living complexes. The program is slated to be expanded to three buildings at the Ebenezer campus in south Minneapolis starting in January.
“We took a little bit of a chance to see if the residents would try it and perk up, and they did,” said Joel Prevost, administrator of the 600-resident, multibuilding campus near E. 26th Street and Portland Avenue.
The VR programs at Ebenezer are being rolled out with the aid of Minneapolis-based Visual Inc., which is creating the content for seniors at Ebenezer under a subscription-pricing model. Although WellnessVR is Visual’s flagship program, the company has several other programs in the works, including Super Bowl-week VR installations that will promote the Midwest Dairy Association and Minneapolis bone marrow donation network Be the Match.
Christine Mangold, coordinator of educational and cultural programs at the Minneapolis Ebenezer campus, said she first connected with the Visual team at a social event last year at the nearby American Swedish Institute, where the firm was staging VR demonstrations. It turned out to be a fortuitous meeting.
“They had the same vision for the use of the technology,” said Prevost who, like Mangold, had not previously used VR. “It was wellness, it was to be in a health care space. And I think it really contributed to the success of the program that we had the right partner.”
A pilot study of Visual’s WellnessVR platform at Ebenezer examined self-reported experiences for 25 participants at Ebenezer who used the system for sessions of seven to 11 minutes, twice per week, for a month. Although the study didn’t have the rigorous controls of a randomized clinical trial, it did document what appeared to be clear trends, with at least 97 percent of users reporting feeling at least somewhat more relaxed and more positive after using VR.
The researchers were surprised to find the positive feelings from using VR seemed to spill over into other interactions. Nearly 95 percent of participants reported that after using VR, they felt better while spending time with family and friends, vs. 65 percent who reported the same effect without VR exposure. VR users also gathered together around their use of the system, like members of a book club.
“Socializing increased,” Visual founder and CEO Chuck Olsen said. “They reported being less depressed as well. You can’t really draw much from that, but we know that participants are excited about it.”
Existing lifelong-learning curricula in senior care centers tend to be heavy on arts and crafts. Bringing new technology into the mix was a way to enliven the offerings with a different kind of experience that even friends and family outside the senior complex might be envious of, Prevost noted. (Roughly 5 percent of North Americans own a VR headset, according to digital market firm GlobalWebIndex.)
Virtual reality is designed to completely obscure a user’s vision and replace it with a video or simulation that moves as the user turns their head, creating an immersive 360-degree sight-and-sound experience.
VR users at Ebenezer can stand next to one of the Stonehenge boulders and sense how large it is in proportion to themselves. They can sit back and let a boat ferry them along a tour of Amsterdam’s famed canals. They can watch scofflaw rock climbers at Minnehaha Falls.
Although all of the VR programs used at Ebenezer so far are real scenes photographed on a special 360-degree camera, Olsen noted that animated VR scenes may eventually join the photographic ones in WellnessVR.
The VR videos are displayed on the Samsung phone, which is snapped into the front of the VR headset, putting the phone screen just centimeters from the person’s eyes. Lenses inside the headset magnify the screen images, which are shown separately for each eye to create a three-dimensional optical illusion like an old-school View-Master toy.
Residents at Ebenezer use the system while sitting down in a swivel chair under supervision. During a recent demonstration, Sol Sepulveda, 64, smiled and stretched out her arms as if absorbing the rays on the beach. “I didn’t have to buy a plane ticket. I was there,” she said afterward.
Bonnie Clark, 77, said that while using VR she felt happier and didn’t notice any aches and pains. VR brought her so close to Stonehenge that she remarked, “I could see the lichens, I could see weathering on the stones.”
About $10,000 was spent to start the Ebenezer VR program, including about $5,000 for two Samsung Gear VR headsets, two unlocked Samsung phones, and access to Visual’s content. The funds to start the program were provided through the Ebenezer Society Foundation.
Olsen said Visual was happy to kick off its WellnessVR platform for health care with the residents at Ebenezer, most of whom are classified as low-income and receive rent assistance from U.S. Housing and Urban Development. Other clients are lined up for 2018, including an upscale senior community in downtown Minneapolis.
Olsen said that after years of promise, sales of virtual-reality devices are starting to climb; right now, price is the biggest impediment to wider adoption among consumers.
The third quarter of 2017 marked the first time that consumers bought more than 1 million VR headsets during a quarter, according to technology-market analysis firm Canalys. The largest share went to Sony, which sold nearly 500,000 gaming headsets for its $349 PlayStation VR system, but Olsen said “all the pieces are there” for widespread adoption of VR for wellness programs.
And it’s not just in senior centers — Olsen can foresee a day soon when patients getting chemo or dialysis could use VR wellness programs during treatments. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles is in the midst of a 140-person randomized clinical trial to test the effectiveness of VR for inpatients with serious pain, following positive results from the hospital’s previous work in VR.
“The use-case makes so much sense,” Olsen said. For people who are “stuck in a place that they probably don’t want to be, it’s a way to bring the world to them. Not only relaxing nature scenes, which is what we started with, but as we’ve come to learn more about lifelong enrichment programs, we’ve really come to see WellnessVR as kind of a lifelong enrichment program in a box.”
Joe Carlson • 612-673-4779