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Embodying a Person with Alzheimer's in Virtual Reality (VR)

Embodying a person with Alzheimer's enables caregivers to understand how the disease affects the brain and behaviors of their loved one.

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Who is your idea designed for and how does it better support family caregivers as they care for a loved one with dementia?

Our idea is designed to help family caregivers understand how Alzheimer's affects the brain, and how that translates into progressive loss of many different functions -- not just memory, but also emotions, attention, communication, facial recognition, auditory processing, and spatial awareness. The ability to understand that their loved one is not behaving "normally" because they can't, rather than because they won't, is an essential part of becoming a more patient and compassionate caregiver.


How can someone with a healthy brain understand a person with Alzheimer's Disease?

Embodied Labs envisions a world where caregivers of aging populations can better care for and understand the perspectives of the aging experience. To accomplish this goal, we have created a subscription-based software made up of a growing library of embodied human experience labs that end users access through a virtual reality headset. All of our labs are based on the Embodied Labs Learning Framework that is grounded in embodied learning theory.  The final experience is a 360 live action video with interactive elements where the caregiver's hands are tracked and projected as the fictional (but medically accurate) person that they embody.

We are creating a "Human Experience Library", which currently includes The Beatriz Lab: Alzheimer's Disease.

We currently have two complete labs. In The Alfred Lab, the caregiver embodies an elderly man who has hearing loss and and macular degeneration, then engages in an immersive documentary about real people living with these audiovisual disabilities today. In The Beatriz Lab, the caregiver embodies an elderly woman as she progresses through early, middle, and late stage Alzheimer's disease then reflect on the embodied experience by engaging in an immersive documentary about real people living with Alzheimer's disease today.

Sample Learning Outcomes for The Beatriz Lab:

Learners will:

1. Understand how Alzheimer's affects each of the five regions of the brain and what symptoms and behaviors can be linked to these regions.

2. Understand how caregivers can engage with their loved one in positive ways that promote better communication and quality of life for both the caregiver and person with Alzheimer's.

3. Understand how the person with the disease, their care partners, and various parts of the healthcare system can all work together as a team.

4. Understand some of the ways that culture and a person's background can affect their and their families' perceptions of Alzheimer's disease.

How it works:

Currently, our beta customers purchase a VR headset, computer, and software subscription. A learner logs into the app, selects a lab, takes a pre-assessment, embodies a patient, completes a post-assessment, and exits. There are a variety of options for further reflection individually and in groups with the accompanying curricular materials that come with the module. 

Who our customers are:

Our software is being used by students in medical schools, osteopathic schools, physician assistant schools, allied health programs, high schools, and by staff, family caregivers, and volunteers in long term care facilities.

Prototyping Timeline:

  • October 2016: Pilot study with 2nd year medical students as part of their geriatrics curriculum. We learned that we would need an application to effectively deploy VR in the education environment.
  • January 2017: We began working with our first beta customers. We learned that we would need to integrate customized assessment capabilities with our application to satisfy the needs of our customers to test the efficacy of our product and value of their investment in VR hardware and software.
  • May 2017: As finalists in the EdSimChallenge, we prototyped our app in high school classrooms, and updated our app to support individual, group, and classroom modes of learning.
  • December 2018: We released the Beatriz lab and prototyped it with staff, volunteers, and family caregivers at a long term care community. We received feedback that we plan to integrate into our plans for our mobile and desktop app.

Looking to the future:

Within the next two years, VR technology will become a common patient and family education tool for any organization or business that serves older adults. The price and capability of the hardware continues to drop in price every month. For now, our experiences only work on high end VR systems (e.g., Oculus Rift or HTC Vive rather than Gear VR or Cardboard) because we have found that the higher fidelity experiences deliver a significantly higher quality user experience and drive meaningful learning. In the near future our high quality, interactive experiences will be accessible through an app on an affordable VR headset. At Embodied Labs, we are committed to creating human experiences that transform the way caregivers engage with those who are aging.

Embodied Labs is currently developing partnerships to make their software more accessible to the people who need to use it. Our software will soon become available to visitors of an aging services innovation center in Lousiville, Kentucky (home to the largest amount of aging services headquarters in the US), allowing the public and those interesting in aging and senior services to use our software at that location. We also envision partnering with public libraries to make The Beatriz Lab and accompanying materials and resources accessible to their patrons.

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

In 2016, we did a pilot study with a Chicago area medical school. Data showed that The Alfred Lab increased interest in geriatrics, enhanced perspective-taking for medical students, and decreased negative stereotyping of older adults. Because this pilot data showed efficacy, we are now doing another study with a long term care facility, where both of our labs are being used to assess how our labs affect resident care in staff & volunteers, as well as being used for family education of residents.

What skills, input, or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Collaboration is a highly valued part of Embodied Labs company culture. We would love for the OpenIDEO community to be able to give us valuable feedback from our potential end-users -- the family caregivers who need so much support to do what they do everyday. We would love to hear what they need and what they would like to see in a "human experience library" designed to help them understand the perspectives of their loved ones as they care for them in their journey through dementia.

How long has your idea existed?

  • Over 1 year

This idea emerged from

  • A group brainstorm
  • A student collaboration
  • An Individual

Tell us about your work experience:

Embodied Labs has existed as a company since August of 2016. Our co-founders, employees, and advisors have combined expertise and life experience in VR film-making, software development, curriculum design, medical illustration, dementia caregiving, neurology, counseling, and entrepreneurship.

How would you describe this idea while in an elevator with someone?

Embodied Labs creates immersive virtual reality experiences that allow family care partners to embody a person with Alzheimer's disease (AD). Our most recent VR lab takes the learner on journey through the stages of AD, where they experience the 1st person perspective of someone with AD, interact with their world using their own hands and voice, and learn about what is happening inside the brain.

How does your idea demonstrate our Criteria of Accessibility?

Our current subscribers purchase VR hardware and a subscription to our software. Embodied Labs is looking for partner who could put investment into putting our software in public libraries, allowing care partners to utilize our content for free. Many public libraries are already investing in VR hardware or have received it from VR companies, making this a realistic model. Also, our long term care customers are already using our software to create programming for resident families and the public.

How does your idea demonstrate or plan to demonstrate scalability?

The future of hardware is in high fidelity VR as it transitions from desktop to an affordable mobile/wireless solution in 2018 or early 2019. We are building content for where the tech will be in 1-2 years, but are able to implement our idea now to test and optimize its efficacy. The data we are tracking with our current customer channels will allow us to scale to the consumer market when the tech is able to deliver higher quality video, richer interactivity--and deliver it through smart phones.

How do you plan to measure the impact of your idea?

We took the prototype that we developed for our pilot study and have now begun to measure the impact around two main themes, using the built-in assessments that are part of our application: 1) Personal experience: what have been your experiences caring for someone with Alzheimer's disease? What has been positive? What has been difficult? 2) Disease knowledge: what do you know about Alzheimer's disease? How can learning more about how the disease affects the brain make you a better caregiver?

What are your immediate next steps after the Challenge?

1) We will use the feedback we gathered this past month and will continue to gather from our pilot long term care facility to launch a full version of our product. 2) We will make another VR lab for our platform that is centered around the topic that our current subscribers voted is the most important to them. 3) We will look for partnerships to get software to care partners into public spaces now, while building a product that will scale well when hi-fidelity hardware is more wireless/mobile.

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Join the conversation:

Photo of Isabel Vega

Hi Erin, after seeing your project today, I think Virtual Reality can transform the concept of empathy. Before today, I had a very general view of what VR is for, however, now, I believe there is an amazing potential in the use of this technology for helping people, around others with alzheimer, vision problems or so, understand more profoundly, see and feel how is it like to have certain diseases and from there imagine how could they help the real needs of the person they care or know. So, so far, I believe that the material you posted for the challenge is a great contribution. From there, I hope you make it real to expand the use of this VR solution.
My contribution would be the following ideas to expand the use of this solution:
* Chloe's question made me wonder what if you get in touch with universities that offer medical or chemical careers ? How might we impact their learning experience and training so they can improve provide an integral service that considerates their patients human needs?, Could it be useful for you to receive feedback or new ideas to create VR videos for other diseases?
*what if you talked with some schools to explore the possibility and benefit of including this solution in a school class for children or adolescents know more about how other people have not the same capabilities they have? How could it contribute to create a more empathic society?
I would love to know more about your project. Great work.

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