Craig Palmer Hasn’t left his Manhattan apartment in four years, but on a recent afternoon, the 78-year-old made a transatlantic voyage—while seated upright in his bed. He visited Stonehenge, a favorite vacation site of his; the streets of London’s Russell Square, near his old apartment; the stretch of Broadway where he lived and worked for so many years. A singer and actor for most of his career, Palmer was eager to poke his head backstage at the Triad, an Upper West Side nightclub he used to frequent. Back and forth the man moved his head, his eyes obscured by the Gear VR headset he wore.
Sitting at the foot of the bed, Jake Kahana kept a close eye on Palmer, guiding the trip via tablet. Show tunes played quietly in the distance, and car horns blared from a window outside. “This is awesome,” Palmer said, tilting his head under the weight of the headset. “I get homesick for everything.” The experience was among Palmer’s first with VR, but that made it no less important. The bedridden man represents a population that Kahana fears has been forgotten by the VR industry: seniors.
“Everyone talks about VR as a millennial thing,” says Kahana, a New York-based designer and film director. “But the elderly are the fastest-growing segment of the population, and there really weren’t that many people looking at how this could work for them.” Kahana wanted to be one of those people, so he created BettVR With Age, a series of films designed to benefit seniors. The films, which he officially unveils today, are the result of more than 18 months of production, testing and focus groups. “They want entertainment,” Kahana says. “I know this sounds silly, but seniors are just like us.”
Kahana’s idea for the project came about through his own struggles in communicating with his own grandmother. First they spoke on the phone, but transitioned to writing letters. When that became too difficult for her, he told her that he wished she could be in his living room in New York—a realization that inspired him Kahana, who worked as the creative director for the Clinton Foundation’s Emmy-nominated VR film Inside Impact: East Africa, to try and find a solution.
Despite precipitous growth in VR research over recent years, less exists around applications for the elderly. However, findings in other fields may hold a clue to VR’s benefits. Researchers have learned that listening to music from the 1930s or 1940s can jog memories for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. At Stanford, researchers found that virtual reality simulations had a direct impact on how people behaved in the real world, even after they took off their headsets—in fact, as neuroscientists at UCLA discovered, the part of one’s brain that responds to their VR surroundings is different than the part that responds to the real world, raising questions about the new ways in VR it could affect memory.
Given the dearth of literature, Kahana opted for field work. He spent close to six months visiting community centers like DOROT, a senior facility in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, talking to seniors about what they might want from a VR experience. (Headsets and phones were donated by Samsung and software by Rendever, an MIT startup focused on bringing VR to the elderly.) His work with the Clinton Foundation had involved grandeur—sweeping vistas, the streets of Nairobi—and he expected that his new audience would also thrill to the possibility. Yet, the seniors he spoke with simply missed the everyday experiences they could no longer physically access: museums, concerts, tours. Despite being anxious about using a new technology, Kahana says, the seniors were above all excited. “They love to learn,” he says. “They had these limitations, physical or otherwise, but they still wanted new experiences.”
Kahana then set out to direct the 10 films that make up his series. In one, a pair of violinists play a cozy apartment concert for friends. In another, viewers experience a concert at an LA bar today where patrons and performers are still clad in World War II-era clothing. There’s a tour and concert at the a Lower East Side museum; a peek into a dance rehearsal; a guided mediation and chorus. Hoping to avoid the motion sickness that can affect VR users, Kahana’s shots are mostly from a stationary standpoint, surrounded by movement that isn’t too jarring or sudden. They’re simple, yet powerful in concept and execution, highlighting elements of a experience many take for granted while creating a sense of intimacy. The technology and films will be donated to DOROT to use for senior programming—and Kahana is already training nursing home staff how to use the headsets on their own.
New York to Amsterdam and Back
Back in Craig Palmer’s apartment, a violin concert unfolded before his eyes. The sedentary lifestyle has been frustrating for Palmer—a sharp contrast to a decades-long career as a singer and performer on Broadway. Much of his days now are spent watching Chelsea FC soccer games and the news, or listening to a rotation of show tunes. Being in a wheelchair and unable to see the latest theatrical productions “is terrible,” he said. “But you have to accept what you have.”
After watching Kahana’s films, Palmer asked if there was anything else he could see. Kahana launched Google Maps’ VR app, and sent Kahana to Amsterdam. “I was on that canal,” Palmer said, watching the boats and bicycles. “It doesn’t smell!”
Next stop: London, a city where Palmer had lived off and on for years. “That place had the most horrible bacon you’ve ever had,” Palmer said.
“I’m a vegetarian, Craig,” Kahana said.
“Good! Then you won’t have to taste it.”
Kahana moved him across town to the Tate Modern. “Oh, is that the Thames?” Palmer asked. “I fell into that once. Accidentally, after a party.”
After about 15 minutes, the experience ended; Kahana gently lifted the headset off of Palmer’s head and asked the man how he felt. “It was awesome,” Palmer said. “But it would be better if I had a scotch and a cigarette.”
“Is there anything you want me to pass on to people who will be there?” Kahana asked of the launch party, tucking the headset back into his bag.
“Don’t ever say ‘pass on’ to a senior,” Palmer said.