Virtual reality can be fun! Head-mounted devices in old adults

by  Mireia Coll I Omaña [physiotherapist]
Virtual reality (VR) can be very useful in a wide range of areas and is defined as a “variety of […]

Virtual reality (VR) can be very useful in a wide range of areas and is defined as a “variety of technologies that present artificially generated sensory information in a form that people perceive as similar to real-world objects or events” (1).
The first VR system appeared in the late 1800s as stereoscopic photo viewers that added depth to two-dimensional images. But it wasn’t until 1986 that the first fully immersive Head-Mounted Display for Virtual Reality (HMD–VR) was developed (1).
Since then, HMD–VR has incredibly evolved. Now, the devices are affordable, portable, and lightweight, providing opportunities in a variety of areas such as medicine and rehabilitation (1).

How can VR be useful?

Along with what has been previously mentioned, with HMD–VR we can tailor the needs of every individual, provide personalized feedback on performance, and provide intervention in a safe and non-threatening yet realistic environment (1).
VR health applications are frequently focused on improving health conditions that are prevalent, particularly among older individuals (2). For example, post-stroke motor rehabilitation, memory training, or post-stroke cognitive assessment (2). But, compared to traditional computerized methods, immersive VR brings the opportunity to evaluate and train different areas in a more sensitive, ecologically valid, and safe way (2).
Additionally, VR enables the simulated practice of functional tasks at higher doses than in traditional therapies (1). Moreover, since users consider the virtual tasks more interesting and enjoyable, the use of VR encourages greater participation and higher levels of engagement in therapy (1).
“HMD–VR provides an enhanced sense of immersion in the virtual world” (1), such immersion enables the user to experience increased embodiment, which has been seen to improve motor-related processes and therefore can benefit physical rehabilitation (1).


Despite its clear advantages and its prevalent use among older individuals, technology usage depends on technology “attitudes” and older adults have been seen to have more negative attitudes and acceptance towards new technology (2). According to the unified theory of acceptance and usage of technology (UTAUT), the intention to use technology or “technology acceptance” is influenced by the perceived usefulness of technology (performance expectancy) and the perceived ease of using technology (effort expectancy) (2).
Fortunately, HMD–VR systems solve this problem! Some studies have proved that older adults who had never used virtual reality before, increased their attitudes towards immersive virtual reality from neutral to positive after the first exposure to immersive virtual reality, but not after other strategies which were not that immersive (screens or tablets)(2). Modern HMDs include integrated head tracking, thereby allowing to move the head and have a visual perspective change in the virtual environment accordingly (3). Moreover, the use of headphones or loudspeakers can additionally generate spatialized binaural sound (3), and we could add many more interfaces to enrich the experience. VR goes beyond traditional display technologies by fully immersing users in an interactive space that they can explore while eliminating interference from the real world (3).
Additionally, evidence suggests that VR HMDs may also be an effective way to alleviate stress, depression, and anxiety in seniors with age-related conditions (3).

To summarize, VR technologies have become increasingly accessible, affordable, and comfortable to use. Thus, we have a unique opportunity to use these technologies to enable older adults with age-related impairments to escape from their often confined realities and be transported to interesting, stimulating, calming, and enjoyable places; experiences that may reduce feelings of boredom, apathy, depression, and isolation and improve overall well-being (3).

[1] Saldana D, Neureither M, Schmiesing A, Jahng E, Kysh L, Roll SC, et al. Applications of head-mounted displays for virtual reality in adult physical rehabilitation: A scoping review [Internet]. Vol. 74, American Journal of Occupational Therapy. American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc; 2020 [cited 2021 Apr 26]. p. 7405205060p1. Available from: /pmc/articles/PMC7430729/
[2]  Huygelier H, Schraepen B, van Ee R, Vanden Abeele V, Gillebert CR. Acceptance of immersive head-mounted virtual reality in older adults. Sci Rep [Internet]. 2019 Dec 1 [cited 2021 Apr 26];9(1). Available from: /pmc/articles/PMC6418153/
[3]  Appel L, Appel E, Bogler O, Wiseman M, Cohen L, Ein N, et al. Older Adults With Cognitive and/or Physical Impairments Can Benefit From Immersive Virtual Reality Experiences: A Feasibility Study. Front Med [Internet]. 2020 Jan 15 [cited 2021 Apr 27];6:329. Available from: /pmc/articles/PMC6974513/


Article written by Mireia

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