Virtual reality headsets were the big ticket item for teens at Christmas. But it's not just young gamers who've been having fun with VR technology.
From reminiscing to spending a night at the opera, researchers have been looking into whether VR technology can help aged care residents, with separate trials in Victoria and South Australia.
At Nellie Melba Retirement Village in Melbourne, residents were treated to an operatic experience like no other as part of an Australian-first VR opera trial.
Residents, including Australian opera icon Nance Grant, as well as residents with dementia, took part in the trial in December.
Developed by VR streaming platform Inverse and the Melba Opera Trust, the trial was aimed at evaluating the therapeutic benefits of VR and opera for older people.
Ryman Healthcare operations quality manager Joanne Wang said within minutes of residents donning their headsets for the recital the benefits were obvious for all to see. She said residents living with dementia gently moved their bodies in time to the music, while a round of applause followed each rousing aria.
Nellie Melba resident and soprano star Nance said the experience was "fantastic in every way".
Mental health 'boost'
In Adelaide, a group of Helping Hand aged care residents have been using VR to help recall their past adventures and positive memories as part of a study by University of South Australia.
UniSA PhD candidate Jim Saredakis is using virtual reality to address widespread apathy in aged care homes, which speeds up cognitive decline and can affect up to 84 per cent of older residents.
"Lack of interest in life and loss of motivation are extremely common among people in aged care homes," he said. "Apathy contributes to a poorer quality of life and is associated with a three-fold risk of earlier death compared to those without apathy."
He said while music and art therapy are often used to motivate aged care residents, VR can be used as a powerful tool for "reminiscence therapy", which allows seniors to immersive themselves in happier memories from their past.
VR is 'a powerful tool'
Saredakis tailored VR experiences for 17 residents, interviewing each about their life history with a focus on positive memories and then sourcing content specifically for each person.
The content was viewed through a 360-degree video on head-mounted displays, allowing residents to relive autobiographical memories of travel, favourite places, jobs, family videos and other social connections.
"It's a digital life storybook; a powerful tool which takes aged care residents away from the world they're in and into a happier time and place with no other distractions," he said.
"I saw a visible change in them. The emotional responses were varied (including happy tears) but always positive."
He also said there were marked improvements in verbal fluency, a key indicator of apathy.
Some negative side effects included dizziness, motion sickness and some eye strain. However, Mr Saredakis said all participants endorsed the project and said it was their favourite activity in the home.
"The fact that residents with the highest levels of apathy showed the most improvements tells us that virtual reality could help improve the lives of older adults in residential aged care," he said.