Daniel Kharlas smiles when he recalls watching a senior experience virtual reality for this first time during a recent ‘pop-up’ event at Cherryhill Village Mall.
“They were ‘flying’ between countries when they wanted to stop in a particular location,” said the General Manager of VRcadia, a London-based virtual-reality company.
“They ‘stopped’ in a city and began telling us this story of where they were, somewhere they had travelled to maybe 30 or 40 years ago. They were there ‘walking’ the streets and telling us how it had changed and that used to look so different.
“This kind of dialogue – being able to use a technology in a way that some people may think of as an isolating technology – is great. It really is a social technology.”
Today, Kharlas, BSc’16 (Psychology), MSc’19 (Psychology), is building on his earliest gaming success by expanding virtual reality’s role in society, especially focused on seniors. It is a plan, he says, that can make a positive difference in the lives of many.
“It’s not just an entertainment technology. We want technology to work for us, in all parts of society. If it’s going to be integrated into the way we live – and it is – we want it to fit on a personal level.”
Most virtual-reality experiences involve the use of a headset that completely takes over the wearer’s field of vision. When turned on, the LCD or OLED panels inside the headset are refracted by the lenses to completely fill the wearer’s field of vision with whatever is displayed.
Visually, the wearer is transported to wherever the headset wants them to go – the outside world is replaced with a virtual one.
VR technology has been the hottest frontier for some of the world’s biggest companies, with everyone from Sony to Microsoft to Facebook in the game. Worldwide spending on augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) is forecast to reach $160 billion annually in 2023, up significantly from the $16.8 billion forecast for 2019, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Semiannual Augmented and Virtual Reality Spending Guide
Gaming spending alone is expected to reach $20.8 billion annually by 2023. However, the fastest spending growth will come in more practical applications, like education, anatomy diagnostic and therapy.
At Western, Kharlas conducted a handful of studies exploring what should be measured when looking at meditation, being it focusing on personality, imagination capabilities or brain activity, then building a model based on those measurements to understand how different meditations line up to different outcomes.
Outside of school, he began developing the idea of virtual-reality mediation with an area company. The idea of incorporating virtual reality in this manner intrigued Kharlas, who began working on the idea of potentially starting a business during the first year of his masters.
“My masters was a transition point. I was deciding if I wanted to go the clinical route or go deeper into academics. I really wasn’t aware of the option of starting my own business. That never really came to mind,” he said. “Then I worked on a project doing a research-and-development virtual-reality project. I began to think this could be a possibility.”
Earlier this year, Kharlas opened VRcadia, a “virtual-reality lounge,” where customers rent the use of a virtual-reality booth for gaming, artistic endeavours, or other content. VRcadia also works with developers and designers, academics and artists, industry leaders and entrepreneurs to expand the VR market.
While virtual-reality gaming’s popularity trends younger, he started his Richmond and Oxford streets location with the hopes of expanding his reach by bringing virtual reality to as many different groups as possible in the community – and a big part of that is seniors.
“We are trying to figure out where this fits into people’s lives – and that extends beyond our location,” he said. “We are trying to learn how we can work with organizations in the community to bring virtual reality to perhaps long-term care facilities or retirement homes. But we need to first understand the end consumer – seniors. There’s an opportunity there; there’s a fit”
Rather than battling zombies or aliens, Kharlas said seniors can take trips around the world, experience space or an underwater adventure, an African safari or even play ping pong or golf.
It’s about finding the right content and asking the right questions, he stressed. A lot of those answers come from conversation with seniors and senior-focused groups in the community.
“We want to approach them about being involved in improving senior living and we have some exciting partnerships on the horizon,” he said.
A number of VR startups have focused their efforts solely on seniors. Some early research has shown that VR can elevate quality of life, combat isolation, even increase physical activity and cognitive function in seniors.
Kharlas added virtual reality has the ability to make seniors lives that much better and open up endless possibilities, especially at a time when many think seniors are losing mobility and cognition and may be limited in their physical activities.
“We have a technology that breaks all this open. There are no more barriers to travel; there are no more barrier to experiences,” he said. “They can travel around the world; they can experience skydiving; they can to space. Whatever it is, we want it to be an experience that is accessible and say, ‘Here it is.’ That’s the exciting part.”