Virtual reality shows a story words can’t tell

Person using Virtual reality headset

Guest Bloggers | 11 January 2018

VR beyond extreme sports and exotic locations – one charity is using it to show us what it’s like to have dementia and is captivating a bigger audience in the process, writes Laura Phipps PhD, Head of Communications and Engagement at Alzheimer’s Research UK, and speaker at the IoF’s recent Digital Inspiration Conference.

Our virtual reality app at Alzheimer’s Research UK has transformed our public engagement work so much that we’ve had to implement queue-control systems at events – a new and welcome experience for us! A Walk Through Dementia puts you in the shoes of someone with dementia as you try to make a cup of tea – from buying the teabags at the supermarket to boiling the kettle at home. 

In contrast to VR experiences from charities like Oxfam, Amnesty International, WWF and WaterAid, we weren’t transporting people to jungles to look at wild tigers or to witness the devastation of war in Syria. We were putting people in somewhat ordinary situations they knew well, but through emotional voiceover and distorting visual effects, we aimed to tell a powerful story about the everyday challenges facing people with dementia.

Starting in a supermarket, then following your walk home and attempts to make a cup of tea in your kitchen, the experience recreates symptoms like forgetfulness, misrecognition, getting lost, disorientation and misjudgements in depth. You mistake a puddle for a hole, lose your son on the walk home, struggle to read your shopping list and experience the embarrassment of an impatient shop assistant. The app uses an internal monologue and racing heartbeat effect to create feelings of tension and panic in the user that people with dementia told us they so often experience in their everyday life.

Alzheimers blog - supermarket screenshot


We developed the app as an engagement tool – with a growing public engagement programme at Alzheimer’s Research UK, we were keen to stand out from the crowd. Sadly, the stigma that remains around dementia meant we still experienced people making an awkward memory-joke and moving on rather than stopping to talk to us, even if they had been affected by the condition and wanted to know more.

Given we were trying to recreate something that is experienced so differently by so many, we were surprised that the response has been so overwhelmingly positive and that the situations we recreated resonated so strongly to the everyday experiences of so many of our supporters. I’ve spoken to bankers in the city in tears after using it at corporate events as well as families at festivals for whom the app has acted as a trigger to discuss ‘the things that nan does’.

The app has been used by companies at trade exhibitions for medical professionals and even a science centre in Poland. It’s now being used frequently by NHS trusts and care homes in the UK as a training tool, and we’ve secured a corporate partnership that’s funding the development of a training pack around A Walk Through Dementia for health and social care staff.

From a fundraising perspective, we’re looking to test the experience more formally for face-to-face fundraising to explore whether such immersive technology could encourage higher or longer-term financial support. However it’s clear that the app has already helped us to secure major corporate partnerships, allowing us to stand out during pitch processes that often involve consecutive PowerPoint presentations.

We use cheap Google cardboard headsets for our experience and were lucky to have pro bono support from Google and Visyon 360. Therefore, despite its appearance, VR does not always have to be too technical or financially out of reach for charities. But it did take many months of scripting, filming and consultation with people with dementia and their families before the app was ready.

In a charity environment where many are looking to innovative technologies to enhance supporter engagement, I do believe VR can be a game-changing way to engage supporters and you don’t necessarily need to be transporting people across the world. But for the investment of time and effort to be worth it, you need to have a clear rationale for how and why you’ll use it and make sure every team across the organisation is open to exploring its potential.

Laura Phipps, Head of Communications and Engagement at Alzheimer’s Research UK


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