Educating people about dementia through a virtual experience

Alzheimer's Australia together with Opaque Multimedia has created a virtual dementia experience to educate people on what it's like to live with dementia.

There are currently more than 332,000 Australians suffering from some form of dementia, according to Alzheimer's Australia.

To further educate potential sufferers of dementia or carers, Alzheimer Australia has teamed up with Melbourne-based digital design studio Opaque Multimedia to create a virtual simulation mimicking scenarios that dementia suffers face.

The virtual dementia experience was set up in a 10-metre by two-metre room of Perc Walkley Dementia Learning Centre in Parkville, Melbourne, in October 2013. Since then, more than 1,000 people have been exposed to the experience.

The multi-sensory gamification simulation uses light, sound, colour, and visual content as well as kinetic senses to project images across the room to re-create experiences that dementia suffers often face, such as perceiving a dark mat on a light floor as a black hole.

Dr Tanya Petrovich, manager of business development at Alzheimer's Australia, who came up with the idea, said the aim of the project was to create an immersive experience.

"As part of working for the Alzheimer's Australia, the peak body that provides support for people living with dementia, what our purpose is to raise awareness about the disease. Dementia is a disease that is often very difficult to explain about what's going on, and therefore it's important to have a deep understanding of it and empathy," she said.

"If you go through academia, it's often about looking at the brain cells and understanding how it works when you have dementia. What this dementia experience gives is an experience for people to start thinking what it's really like to be living with dementia.

"So if I'm getting angry, it's probably because of the difficulties I'm facing with expressing myself. If you get people in that position and start educating, that way it's much more powerful."

As part of the design process, Peterovich said the Opaque Multimedia team visited a dementia facility to speak with carers and residences to gain a better understanding of the reality of dementia in order to be able to produce a near-realistic experience.

Petrovich said she believes the technology can be used as an education tool to help people understand other mental health issues, such as schizophrenia and autism.

The next step for the technology will be to implement it on an Oculus, which Petrovich said will be a more portable way to show off the experience, and hopes it will be available by March 2015.

The technology was recently awarded the winner of the e-learning category of the Asia-Pacific Information Communications and Technology Alliance awards.