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How Alzheimer's Research UK Used Virtual Reality to Spread Public Awareness

Photos provided by Alzheimer's Research UK

Are you a learning professional considering how you could use integrate virtual reality into workplace learning?

Learn about how Alzheimer’s Research UK developed an app to further public awareness about dementia and how organisations from around the UK seized on the opportunity to help their staff better understand dementia. Timothy Parry, Director of Communications & Brand at Alzheimer's Research UK discusses how they partnered with Visyon and Google to simulate some of the physical symptoms of dementia.

Why did Alzheimer’s Research UK decide to use Virtual Reality to help develop public awareness about dementia?

We were very fortunate to work with Google at the outset of the project. We were doing some thinking with them about what our next big fundraising idea might be. It was one of their teams in a department at Google called The Zoo which is Google’s creative think tank for brands. They were drawn towards the challenges that we have as a charity around awareness and understanding of dementia.

It probably won’t be a great surprise that when you’re working with Google they’re very interested in working with the emerging technology of the moment. VR is used successfully by many different industries but Google is really interested in using it for projects that can do some social good. They were interested in helping us to improve our public engagement and public understanding of dementia.

How was the concept of A Walk Through Dementia born?

The next idea was how can we help people understand what dementia actually feels like to people who have the condition. One of the problems we have is that people by and large in the public, when they think about dementia, only think about memory problems. Memory is a big issue when it comes to dementia, but that’s not the whole story.

There’s a huge complicated myriad of cognitive symptoms beyond memory that makes life really difficult with dementia. So we were quite interested in how we could get a broader understanding of the impact of the condition.

Also when you’re looking at VR, you can’t really simulate memory loss, can you? So actually if we’re going to use virtual reality to give a sense of what dementia feels like, it lends itself to all of these other lesser-understood symptoms before it lends itself to memory loss. That was the next stage of getting this project together, we realised that we wanted to use VR, and we wanted to use it to illustrate all of these other complicated symptoms and make it an accessible experience for the general public.

Can you describe how the different partners worked together?

Google provided their project leadership and strategy free of charge through their team called The Zoo. Visyon provided all of the technical input which was also free of charge. So they created the app for us and built it and did all the filming. Alzheimers Research UK collaborated on the writing and planning of content and scripting and worked on the promotion. From the beginning we engaged people affected by dementia to make sure what we created was true to life and their experiences. That’s how the three partners came together.

What was it like to work with Visyon and Google to develop the app and what did you learn along the way?

It was really interesting because different parties brought different expertise. Google and Visyon brought the potential of what the tech could do and we brought the expertise around the impact of dementia. Between us we worked out how the tech could bring those issues and challenges to life.

I learned that when you start working in a different medium like virtual reality, you have to completely rethink the way you’ve done things in the past. In our VR experience there are three different scenarios that play out. In the middle scenario, you’re simply walking down the street, and we created the scene with 360 degree video, filming out on the streets in Hackney. Because the camera is 360 you can’t direct the shoot in the same way you could with a conventional camera, which is what I was used to. So you have to kind of give your actors their instructions and then you have to go to hide behind a bush - you have to get out of the scene completely! That makes it more difficult I suppose, but it also makes it a really interesting challenge of how to work in a completely different medium. From Google and Visyon’s point of view, they learned a lot more about dementia. That’s what we brought to the party.

How has a Walk Through Dementia been received?

We were really fortunate when we launched it. We worked with St. Pancras International Station and they gave us a fantastic space in the station for free. The stands they have are really engaging and people interact with those stands in their multitudes, making it a really great opportunity. We launched there and we had hundreds of members of the public come and have a go. Then we took it to Cheltenham Science Festival and we used it with thousands of school kids and it has been used at science festivals and public engagement events and conferences and all over the place in the 18 months since we’ve launched it. The feedback has been fantastic. We’ve done poll evaluations where users complete the experience and tell us at the end whether it helped them learn things about dementia they didn’t know. Did they feel empathy for the characters within the experience? The response was fantastically positive, helping demonstrate that we achieved what we set out to do - to create empathy and a broader understanding of this most misunderstood condition.

We’ve spoken to an organisation - Essex County Council - who used A Walk Through Dementia as a training resource during their Learning at Work Week. Did you expect your application to be used this way?

I think when we set out on this project - you have awareness, you have learning, and you have training and there are different connotations with each of those words. We were firmly in the awareness space.

We wanted to build a simple, engaging, kind of cool approach to help drive awareness and understanding of dementia. We didn’t really see it as a formal learning tool in the traditional sense. We just saw it as something that we would share with the public to get them interested in the issue.

But what we found when we put it out there is that, while loads of members of the public were indeed using it, we were also seeing more of professional bodies, companies, and organisations approaching us saying: ‘’Look we found out about this thing. Can we get a load of Google cardboard sets from you so we can use this app a bit more meaningfully.’’

It kind of took on its own life in that more and more of these organisations were wanting to use it in the same way that Essex County Council were using it as you just described. That got us thinking that perhaps we need to look at how we can turn A Walk Through Dementia into something a bit more meaty as a training resource and that’s what we’re doing now.

We’ve begun discussions with leading University to do that work, to create a Tier 2 package around it. Our app at the moment is thought of broadly in Tier 1, which is just that general awareness phase, but we’re looking for a way to build more of a package around it to move it into more professional territory.

This interview is part of the U.S. L&D Report 2018.

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  • The employee training budgets, training topics, and training methods of organizations in 2018.

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U.S. L&D Report: 2018
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Last updated: 01 Mar 2019

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