Through the eyes of old age

01.04.2019 von Michael Deutsch in Science, Research
It is a new phenomenon in nursing science: a virtual learning software aims to demonstrate how older people’s perception of their home environment changes. It is being developed in a project at the University of Halle.
Karsten Schwarz presents VR glasses and software
Karsten Schwarz presents VR glasses and software (Foto: Michael Deutsch)

My home is my castle! As their age increases and their activity decreases, people spend most of their day at home. The living room becomes the focus of their life. However, even the beloved home turns into a place with obstacles. An altered perception is an additional problem. But what does living feel like generally in old age? Specifically for people suffering from dementia? What aids or modifications are possible? Knowledge about this and a trained eye for adaptation possibilities are very important for doctors, nurses and caregiving relatives. Especially when it comes to optimising the living environment of the affected people in order to make it possible for them to live in their own home for as long as possible and to live a self-determined life.

The FORMAT project at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg addresses this problem and is developing a science-based virtual software as part of a citizen research project. The prototype has recently been presented in the future laboratory of the Dorothea Erxleben Learning Centre. With the help of this software and virtual reality glasses, it is possible to immerse yourself directly in the world of an affected person. “This gives everyone the opportunity to explore the home through the eyes of an ageing person and to experience moments of shock when they are confronted with all kinds of distortions of perception and stumbling blocks,” explains Dr Karsten Schwarz, coordinator of the FORMAT project.

The simulation involves a tour through a fictitious home with all the distortions of perception caused by dementia. “When you have the glasses on and go through the rooms with restricted vision, you may, for example, learn how colours or patterns of furnishings can appear confusing and lead to uncertainties,” says the 37-year-old. There may be surprises. “Dark spots in the carpet are suddenly perceived as deep holes or a gleaming floor becomes an icy surface,” explains the nursing scientist Christine Schiller. In the future, this virtual trip will make nurses and doctors more aware of scientifically substantiated shifts in perception in older people through immersive personal experience. Which also means designing living spaces less on the basis of aesthetic criteria and more on the basis of criteria that enable a person to maintain their independence.

Dr Karsten Schwarz emphasises that the VR learning software, which was programmed under the working title “Virtual living space assessment for doctors, nurses and caregiving relatives”, is a new phenomenon in the field of nursing science. Under his technical direction, the project was implemented in collaboration with the Chair for Business Informatics and Operations Research (WIOR) at the MLU by business informatics students. They received expert advice from the nursing scientist and dementia care nurse (DCN) Christine Schiller – DCN is a university project in which people with dementia and their relatives are provided with information, advice and support. After a development period of just over a year, the team cleared the next hurdle in the form of the prototype phase and was able to give the specialist audience at this year’s Hannover Messe trade fair a foretaste of what the VR learning software will be able to do in the future in a fully developed version. In Hannover, the team presented the project at the start of April at the joint stand “Research for the Future”, which was shared by the research institutions of the states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia.

The VR learning software project is also a good example of a successful network partnership and a pooling of resources. Several partners and sponsors are on board. In addition to the FORMAT project, the DCN from the state research alliance “Autonomy in Old Age” and the Chair for Business Informatics and Operations Research, the Halle Openlab network is also involved. The Openlab network has been able to acquire funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research via the citizen science project “Openlab.net – Make Science!” for implementation of the project as a citizen research project. This is coordinated by the MLU’s Transfer and Start-up Service. “After all, the VR learning software is also an innovative product that is of interest to start-ups that want to spin off from the university,” explains Anja Richter, project manager of the ideas incubator of the MLU Transfer and Start-up Service. In view of this, the development work in the ideas incubator takes place in close proximity to the Service. In the ideas incubator, students and research assistants can test their ideas for feasibility, develop or construct prototypes and check them for utilisation potential thanks to the advice of the Transfer and Start-up Service. Here, the project participants can make use of laboratories and a 3D and virtual reality workshop, as well as the required technology, free of charge.   

The VR learning software is still in its infancy. To program it more realistically, the developers need to virtualise a real living space – in different forms. “We are interested in all kinds of age-appropriate living, whether it is in a new building, a private home, an old people’s home or an old building,” says Richter. Therefore, the team is looking for older people, possibly accompanied by their caregiving relatives, who are prepared to make their home available for virtualisation in such a learning software. Protection of privacy is guaranteed by the project team. All the virtual tours that are recorded by a scan will be worked upon with the inhabitants until they can approve them without reservations.

Dr Karsten Schwarz
Dorothea Erxleben Learning Centre
Telephone: +49 345 557-4010
E-Mail: karsten.schwarz@medizin.uni-halle.de

Anja Richter
Transfer and Start-up Service
Telephone: +49 345 55-22957
E-Mail: anja.richter@gruendung.uni-halle.de

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