The rainforest forest scenario in summer
The rainforest forest scenario in summer

With sponsorship from a Victorian residential aged care provider, the development of Alzheimer’s Australia Vic’s interactive virtual forest is on track for release later this year.

Listening to a gust of wind in the rainforest, reaching for a passing butterfly and watching the snow fall and turn the tress and ground white is now a reality for a select group of aged care residents with dementia in Victoria.

A dedicated room in four Lifeview Residential Care facilities has been turned into a virtual forest as part of trials of ground-breaking video-game technology.

The Virtual Forest Project, which is an initiative of Alzheimer’s Australia Vic, is a sensory therapy application designed to improve the quality of life of a person with dementia through stimulating the senses and allowing them to interactively engage with the forest.

It uses the latest next generation video game technology including Unreal Engine 4 and Microsoft’s Kinect to produce a visually impressive experience similar to mainstream video games.

Participants can see and hear the forest in different seasons and weather conditions, such as calm, wind and snow, and use their arms to interact with things in the forest, such as a passing butterfly.

Alzheimer’s Australia Vic and game developers Opaque Multimedia Media, which is the same team behind Alzheimer’s Australia Vic’s award-winning Virtual Dementia Experience, launched the project in May via a crowdfunding campaign aiming to raise $90,000.

The campaign fell short of its goal and the project stalled, but it’s now back in development as a result of a new partnership between Alzheimer’s Australia Vic and Victorian provider Lifeview.

A winter snowfall in the forest scenario
A winter snowfall in the forest scenario

The two-year deal involves preliminary and final trials of the Virtual Forest Project exclusively in Lifeview’s homes in Chelsea, Cranbourne, Keysborough, Emerald, and Wheelers Hill.

Madeline Gall, CEO of Lifeview, says it is important to work with research organisations to bring new technologies to fruition.

“Not only is Lifeview helping to assist Alzheimer’s Australia Vic in the valuable work they do in the area of dementia research and support but we are also bringing to our residents this day-changing technology, and giving our staff a better understanding of dementia,” she tells Technology Review.

The trial

Special technology, including screens and projectors required to operate the virtual forest have been installed at participating homes. Preliminary trials began in October and more will follow in early 2015. The finalised program is due to be rolled out from August 2015.

The trial, which involves testing the technology and equipment in a live environment so developers can see it in action and remove any bugs, will assess how to best to roll out this kind of sensory interaction.

It will also investigate the effects the forest has on residents with dementia and provide feedback to Alzheimer’s Australia Vic on the overall experience, thoughts, reactions and demeanour of participants before, during and after entering the virtual forest.

Several residents with dementia at each of the four tests locations are involved along with staff trained to use the technology.

As part of the partnership, Gall says Lifeview staff are undertaking specialist training through Alzheimer’s Australia Vic’s Virtual Dementia Experience.

“This training also uses video game technology and allows staff to become immersed in the virtual world of a person living with dementia. This is an extraordinary experience and recent participants have told us it has changed their thinking on the care they deliver to our residents.”

Lifeview is constantly looking at ways to improve their residents’ lives, says Gall, and it hopes this technology will make a difference to residents living dementia.

A summer butterfly in the forest
A summer butterfly in the forest

“We are hoping this technology assists them to find peace in what can become a world of turmoil and agitation. If we can take our residents out of that world and into a calmer one then we are assisting them to live their lives more peacefully,” she says.

Early feedback is encouraging with positive effects on demeanour and communication seen among participants, which subsequently assists staff to better understand a resident’s history and connect with them, says Gall.

Maree McCabe, Alzheimer’s Australia Vic chief executive, says Lifeview’s sponsorship and assistance has brought the project to fruition.

“Without the generous support of likeminded individuals and corporates such as Lifeview, Alzheimer’s Australia Vic would not be able to bring this cutting-edge technology to people living with dementia.

“Lifeview’s partnership means this technology will be available and making a difference to the quality of people’s lives by this time next year [November 2015],” McCabe says.

As a result of trials held at three Lifeview sites in late 2014 using the original forest scenario, the team at Opaque Multimedia are now re-working the design.

The final design will be very different to the original, Alzheimer’s Australia Vic tells Technology Review.

This article first appeared in the January 2015 Technology Review.

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