Dementia affects 1 in 10 people over the age of 65. So this case study will likely hit close to home. 

Dementia Training Australia (DTA) contracted Viewport to create a Virtual Reality education platform. The learning experience sought to take users “through the looking glass” into the harsh reality of living with dementia.

Viewport developed the Meaningful Spaces experience, a first-person, real-time simulation that places you in the eyes of ‘Georgina’ – an 87-year-old woman who grew up in Fremantle, loves Corgis, and has Dementia.

The VR experience provides care workers with a first-hand understanding of what it’s like to live with dementia. This increased awareness enables them to provide a higher quality of care.

The profoundly emotive experience features world-first functionality addressing the impact of environmental changes vs. prescribed medications. The software allows users to instantly switch between good design and bad design, between 20/20 vision and impaired vision, even the effects of medications. 

Read on to delve deeper into how the Meaningful Spaces experience and immersive tech can enrich healthcare.

The learning experience that goes “through the looking glass”
into the harsh reality of living with dementia.

The Director of Dementia Training Australia at UWA – Dr Andrew Stafford – is a leading quantitative researcher with experience in health program evaluation and health economics. 

Dr Stafford approached Viewport in late 2019. His extensive research on the effect physical space had on dementia patients’ wellbeing produced challenges that traditional methods could not convey. For example;

Contrasting colours (on walls, floors, and skirting boards) provide spatial anchors that help patients navigate a space. However, tonally similar colours, like beige and tan, instil a murky disorientating feel.

Abstract imagery causes anxiety, whereas recognisable, bright, and clear photos leave patients with positive associations, connecting them to the subject matter. For example, in wayfinding, images of food signal a dining area. A small text sign on a door saying “Cafeteria” will be practically invisible to an aged person living with dementia.

Large interior windows into common areas and recreational spaces function in the same manner, allowing natural light to flow and longer sightlines to be established – creating familiar, easy to navigate and bright spaces.

How do you teach spatial methodologies without a space? 

Communicate a Space

Consider that people living with dementia experience cognitive decline, memory loss, often coinciding with vision deterioration. Then factor in the effects of prescription medications. You’re left with quite the challenge. 

It’s not just communicating the significance of simple changes, like a lick of paint and bright photos on the wall. There are many different elements to address. Far too many for just one perspective.  

The Meaningful Spaces VR experience allows users to instantly switch between good design and bad design, between 20/20 vision and impaired vision. There is even a setting that portrays the effects of prescribed medications. 

In addition to teaching critical spatial methodologies, better spaces mean better care. We are firm believers in Dr Andrew Stafford and DTA’s mission. Driving major reforms with VR 

Immersive training experiences are most effective when users feel good in them. Therefore, creating an environment that attracts users –  is key to functionality.

Similarly is intuition. People do not respond well to experiences that foster uncertainty. Users will step into the world to learn, and all aspects of the environment should streamline that process. Because intuition is at the core of all our work, trying the replicate the mindset of a dementia patient posed a unique challenge. 

The Meaningful Spaces experience incorporated sentiments of discomfort and disorientation. Different scenarios that encompass potential issues are thought-provoking. We were able to maintain a focus on accessibility throughout the entire process that guided the user journey. So that while users may have felt odd in certain situations, they were aware that it was a training method. 

To maintain industry-leading awareness, the software itself must be expandable and modular. Building in the capabilities for additions or potential updates is vital in medical software due to the frequency of new studies. Let alone societal and cultural shifts. In 2019, who would have thought sanitisation stations would have been commonplace? What about the protocol surrounding someone’s refusal to wear a mask?

Build Empathy and Connection

VR is a powerful educational tool for building empathy and emotional connection. 

Meaningful Spaces raised awareness of the condition and increased empathy among users. No longer do you “Walk a mile in one’s shoes,” you can now “Step into their head” to get a deeper insight. In addition, the custom-built VR training platform explores recent research into the efficacy of environmental design changes and dementia. 

Viewport engaged a professional voice-over actor to bring the character of Georgina to life. We then recorded thousands of interactions that activate when users approach various touchpoints in the virtual care facility. 

“A must for all Residential Aged Care Facility Staff.”

–  RACF Nurse Educator

These personal touches made the experience even more real. Seeing, hearing, and experiencing the change in Georgina’s demeanour when instantly switching between view settings connects with users on a deep level.

“The Meaningful Spaces experience is profoundly emotive, and participants are more engaged in these workshops than with traditional classroom-type training events.”
Dr Andrew Stafford

Increase Student Engagement

“Change starts from within and this resource provides participants with the opportunity to experience, first hand, the interaction of medications and the environment for someone living with dementia.”

E. Newman –
UWA Director of
Dementia Training Australia

The Johnson & Johnson Institute found a 233% increase in student scores when using VR tech for operative learning. Virtual training fosters student engagement, it means educational staff will get a response, knowing that their pupils are taking it in. 

A set of instructions accompanies physical pieces of technology – this is not how our products work. Instead, we create intuitive user experiences and develop with a human-first approach.  

We deploy a piece of software only when it is airtight. Thus, ensuring that all involved teams understand it and have the tools, they need to use it. In addition, our products go through rigorous testing, during which we alternate our perspective—changing hats, if you will.

This is especially true of DTA Meaningful Spaces. A key feature of which was the ability to alter states and even mindsets. Through site visits and medical journals, we gained an insight into residential aged care facilities and how they work. Our understanding and knowledge of dementia came straight from medical professionals. 

It’s one thing to look at a software creation wearing an industry-insider hat, entirely another when wearing an end-user hat. So we ensure our experiences can be understood by all, as all suitable lessons are. Immersive and interactive technologies are not industry-specific. They’re for everyone.

Increase Information Retention

A study by the Maryland University recorded a 90.4% recall accuracy of subject matter in VR training, far exceeding traditional methods.

VR is such a powerful education tool because it changes what the viewer sees. It makes our senses more alert, and as such, the neural pathways in our brains form with increased clarity.

The hippocampus is the part of our brain that remembers, specifically normal recognition memory; the hippocampus also covers spatial memory. So while students learn the differences by switching between standard and affected vision in VR, they are using the part of the brain that dementia affects

Showcasing the disconcerting contrast that interior design choices inflict on people with dementia is efficiently communicated by activating this spatial awareness. 

A major highlight from our DTA VR training has been effective learning outcomes and retention through the VR experience. Imagine a world where all learning was “amazingly immersive,” as Dr Stafford put it.

The learning experience that goes “through the looking glass” into the harsh reality of living with dementia.

Deepen Understanding

Immersive tech is the method to drive your message home.  While the VR scenes centre around residential care, the principles hold relevance across all care environments.

The technology allows participants to rationalise medication use in dementia care, and create supportive, more home-like environments.

The rationalisation, as mentioned earlier, comes as a result of the first-person experience just as Aristotle said. The learning outcomes from the DTA VR training experience are proof of this. 

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them – we learn by doing them.”

― Aristotle

“The current Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety has highlighted a number of areas where engaging, high-quality training experiences can improve the lives of people living with dementia.”

– Director, Dementia Training Australia

Educating staff in VR significantly reduces training overheads, mitigates hazards, and allows remote training – catering to decentralised workforces.

We appreciate our partnership with Dementia Training Australia and are beaming at their continued vision in transitioning to a virtual training model.