A new project by Cardiff University researchers will explore how ‘mixed reality’ technology can be used to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Scientists are investigating whether standard technology that brings the virtual and physical world together can be used to tackle the growing problem of loneliness in the UK.
The team is evaluating the suitability and feasibility of devices that could, for example, display live images of friends and family resembling holograms in a living room to recreate the social interactions that are dear to many people.
Despite being located hundreds of miles from each other, friends and relatives might experience the sense of being connected much closer to real-life interactions, according to the team, whether in their own home or in a care setting.
The project is an attempt to tackle chronic loneliness, with around 1.5 million people aged 50 and over in the UK suffering from the disease. A recent UK Government White Paper suggested that loneliness could cost private sector employers up to £ 2.5bn per year due to the absence of staff and the resulting productivity losses.
The growing problem of adult loneliness has been compounded by the series of lockdowns needed throughout the coronavirus pandemic over the past 18 months, further severing physical bonds between friends and relatives.
With new funding from UKRI, the Cardiff University team is developing a software prototype that will include a virtual reality headset, worn by a user, and a telepresence robot that can send back images and sounds friends and relatives to the user in various shapes and forms, such as a hologram.
Researchers describe the technology as “mixed reality” and compare the experience to the popular smartphone game Pokémon Go.
“You can imagine an elderly parent sitting in their living room with a cup of tea and interacting with loved ones as if they were sitting right in front of them,” said Dr. Daniel J. Finnegan, principal investigator of the project, of Cardiff University School. computer science and computing.
“This technology could be used to render holograms of people who could literally be hundreds or thousands of miles away and allow people to chat or play games with each other as if they were in the same physical location. Our goal is to support community development activities and reduce the growing epidemic of loneliness. ”
The first stages of the project will involve collecting information from potential end users, with price and technology recognized as potential barriers for older people.
Dr Finnegan plans to work alongside charities and other organizations to develop the product and help roll it out to stakeholders, with a particular focus on developing training programs for caregivers to support them. equip the computer skills necessary to engage with the technology.
“In a world dominated by social media, where we have so many tools and technologies to connect, loneliness remains a huge problem,” continued Dr Finnegan.
“This, I think, could be related to the superficial connectivity experience that these technologies offer. Connectivity is more than being connected – it requires a shared understanding; the chance to socialize; agency and independence, and to share meaningful experiences and interact with other human beings.
“Using technology in smart, meaningful and research-driven ways, this project aims to reduce feelings of emotional and social loneliness and isolation and to some extent contribute to solving the growing problem in the UK.”
The funding, awarded through UKRI, was part of the global Healthy Longevity competition, with more than 500 prizes worth £ 62,500 each awarded globally as seed funding to advance ideas innovative.
In March of this year, MPs from the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Loneliness suggested to the government that public transport should be ‘lonely-proof’ and that the digital divide should be tackled more effectively to maximize loneliness. social interaction.
Repeated studies have shown that robots can often improve the mental health of older people, as well as alleviate feelings of loneliness. Findings like this could pave the way for the introduction of social robots into UK care homes. Meanwhile, research continues actively to find ways for technology to improve care for people with dementia, providing people with the opportunity to maintain and improve their independence, safety and well-being.
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