Fighting Loneliness With VR & AI
Loneliness is a silent killer, especially among the elderly. As the problem worsens during lockdown, I look at how VR and AI can help.
To the surprise of many, a few months ago, pictures of cows wearing virtual reality (VR) headsets started popping up all over the internet. Apparently, a farm in Russia was testing the specially adapted goggles to reduce anxiety among dairy cows.
A press release from Moscow’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food said the trial came as part of a growing trend in agriculture to protect the emotional wellbeing of animals, and they claimed an initial run showed the headsets improved the mood of the herd. But there was speculation over whether it was genuine or a mere marketing ploy.
Of those who believed the experiment was real, some thought the idea was smart, expanding the already extensive use of modern technology in farming to bring positivity into the lives of animals. Others were furious, certain the true objective was to increase milk yield, and arguing a surge in happiness could only come from giving livestock the space and freedom they really need.
Whether a publicity trick or not, the story highlights the potential for VR to help solve the problem of loneliness — and not just in animals. This technology can benefit humans too, especially those who find themselves in “reduced circumstances” — as Margaret Atwood puts it in The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood wryly refers to the total subjugation of her protagonist Offred by a totalitarian regime, whereas I simply refer to social isolation.
Social isolation is a curse on society at the best of times. At the moment though, it’s affecting more people as much of the world finds itself subject to strict coronavirus-related lockdown rules. Those who normally rely upon the outside world and social interaction to maintain good psychological wellbeing are now trapped inside.
For a few years, companies across the globe have been using VR to change the lives of socially isolated people for the better, including the elderly, disabled and terminally ill. In much the same way as livestock, many such individuals are forced into a life of confinement and solitude against their will. Such a life can be damaging for mental health, most often causing anxiety and depression, but it can also be just as harmful to physical health as high blood pressure, obesity and smoking.
If we’re looking at lockdowns continuing on a relatively long-term basis, maybe the most vulnerable among us should consider using VR more widely to ensure physical and mental wellbeing.
Of course, in an ideal world, things would be very different. Pigs, sheep and cows, all of which are social creatures like most humans, wouldn’t be caged in often cramped and squalid conditions. Instead, they’d have vast, green pastures to roam and plenty of other animals to interact with. Similarly, disabled, elderly and terminally ill people wouldn’t be stuck at home or in care homes and hospitals, but would instead be free to get out and about, breathe fresh air and chat to other souls as much as they want or need. And the same goes for all those additional people locked in their homes for the foreseeable future thanks to this pandemic.
However, we live not in that ideal world, even when we’re not being savaged by Covid-19, but a far harsher reality in which those existing in reduced circumstances must make the best of them.
The immersive power of VR can help with that to some extent, generating fun and meaningful experiences from within four walls. It brings the outdoors inside, allowing individuals to tour urban landscapes, relax in bustling cafes, sketch scenes in peaceful parks, or enjoy concerts and plays from the front row.
Users can call on places of significance, like where they got married, grew up or raised their children, or travel to far-flung destinations to visit major landmarks, traverse expansive mountain ranges, swim in great lakes or explore complex cave systems. They could even find themselves on a journey into space, and there’s no telling what they might interact with there.
As is the case with a lot of technology, VR can be most effective when humans or additional tech are involved. For example, to get the most out of VR in care settings, where there are other people nearby, it could be applied in groups. This may encourage patients or residents to share their experiences with each other and staff members, igniting lively discussions that wouldn’t otherwise have happened, also potentially reducing the need for gadget-based solutions in future.
Elsewhere, when people live alone and don’t come into frequent contact with others, combining VR and human interaction in this way won’t always be possible. This is where other technologies, especially those using artificial intelligence (AI), step in.
In the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing a post about whether humans can fall in love with voice assistants (VAs). Whether or not you think that’s a nutso idea, what isn’t nuts is the suggestion devices like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant can offer lonely people some much-needed interaction at any time of the day or night. Several countries have trialled VAs to help battle loneliness with generally positive results, but their impact could be greater if supplemented by regular human interaction and VR sessions, giving users a more rounded experience.
Of course, there are a couple of factors to consider here, the first of which is cost. Although the internet-connected devices featuring VAs are cheaper than VR goggles, making them a more affordable option for some, they may still be too expensive for others. Government subsidies and crowdfunding schemes could go a long way in improving access to both.
The second thing to think about is the fact a lot of senior citizens aren’t so tech-savvy and find it difficult to familiarise themselves with any new technology. For that reason, getting them to welcome either VAs or VR tech could prove challenging or impossible. This issue could be overcome through explanatory tutorials delivered by a team of volunteers similar to the Barclays Digital Eagles.
The Digital Eagles were instigated by my first Boss, Steven Roberts, when I worked for Barclays as its first Head of Digital back in the day. I witnessed their success in bringing tech-shy people of all ages up to speed with a range of the most recent internet-connected devices, and I’m confident this could be replicated in other contexts.
If these key obstacles can be surmounted, VR and AI represent a genuine opportunity to enhance the lives of many lonely individuals everywhere. As we all suffer through our own temporary self-isolation nightmares, perhaps we might spare a thought for those who deal with this way of life 24/7, all year round.
I know I’d certainly back any schemes to facilitate getting such technology into care homes, hospices and hospitals, and to vulnerable folk living at home by themselves. Looking at all the community support efforts to pop up over the last few weeks, I imagine I wouldn’t be alone either.
And who knows, maybe once we make it out the other side of this crisis, we’ll try harder as a society to be there for our socially isolated neighbours, and they won’t need to lean on VR and AI for an adventure or a simple natter.