This guy let seniors play with virtual reality ... and they liked it

A London, Ont. entrepreneur who operates a virtual reality shop on Richmond Street is looking to develop content for seniors.

VRcadia stages pop-up event at Cherry Hill Mall to see how seniors might use the technology

Daniel Kharlas, general manager of VRcadia in London, says virtual reality could be a life-changer for seniors with mobility issues. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

In a recent event in London, Ont., local virtual reality (VR) company VRcadia staged a pop-up inside a vacant storefront. 

Passersby were able to stop in and try out VR sets for the first time, doing everything from walking through virtual versions of cities overseas, to permorning group meditation over the internet. 

The concept isn't new, but the clientele was. The pop-up happened at London's Cherry Hill Mall, and the customers trying out the technology for the first time were seniors. 

VRcadia general manager Daniel Kharlas said many of the 30 to 60 people who tried out the VR sets were intrigued by them, not intimidated. 

"There was a lot of 'Wow, I didn't know this was possible,'" said Kharlas. "And also, 'What else is possible?'"

That "what else" question is top-of-mind for Kharlas right now. He's exploring how virtual reality — which can immerse users in a detailed digital world — can best serve seniors. 

VR is sometimes thought of as just a gaming platform, one with a target demographic that tops out at 50. In January, Kharlas and two partners opened the VRcadia lounge on Richmond Street at Oxford. They use licensed content and do everything from corporate team-building events to birthday parties.

That's all standard fare for a VR lounge, but Kharlas wants to take the technology further. 

He specialized in psychology and neuroscience as a graduate student at Western University. He's interested in developing VR experiences that can enhance wellness for its users, in particular seniors with physical or cognitive challenges brought on by aging. 

For example, Google Earth VR can allow a user in her 70s to revisit the city in Europe where she grew up. She can walk down the streets, look all around her and see how it's changed.

Virtual reality can empower users

Another program, Nature Treks VR, allows users to explore natural environments, even interacting with animals they meet on the way. 

Kharlas said the technology can be empowering users, particularly those who'd like a break from their daily routine. Using VR technology over the internet also opens the possibility of social interactions.

He said for many seniors, the VR controllers are more intuitive to learn than a keyboard or mouse.

"Your hands are present and right in front of you," he said. "You can interact with the world in a way you expect to."

Kharlas wants to try another pop-up for seniors toward the end of summer. He can see a day when VR sets are standard equipment at care homes, helping seniors stay active and engaged.

He said the key for developing content is listening to seniors, learning what experiences they're looking for and striving to deliver them. 

"Seniors telling us what they want in VR, those are the conversations we're really looking for," he said.  "I'm excited to see where this goes."