By entering a new virtual reality experience, young medical students going into the field of gerontology may now have the opportunity to feel what it’s actually like to be a 74-year-old patient.
The project, called “We are Alfred,” allows young residents to build empathy with their elderly patients and experience what they often go through on a daily basis.
“The project is focusing on comfort,” said Dr. Eric Swirsky, clinical assistant professor of biomedical and health information sciences and a faculty adviser for the project. “It’s not curing, it’s not curative, it’s not even treatment-oriented. It’s about comforting and understanding where the patient is so that you can be with him.”
“We are Alfred” was the research project of Carrie Shaw, a master’s student in biomedical visualization. Shaw’s goal was to develop an interactive, experiential product that could be used for curriculum in geriatrics — the health and care of elderly people.
“[We’re] trying to portray different kinds of medical conditions, sensory changes from the first-person perspective of a patient,” said Shaw.
As the U.S. population becomes older, the field of geriatrics is expected to experience significant growth in the next decade. This may lead to a greater disconnection between older patients and the new young doctors who treat them.
“[Medical students] are usually in their early 20s and not experiencing those kinds of challenges yet, so we decided to create something that would give them the experience of what it might be like to go through the aging process,” Shaw said.
Once students put on the Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 headset and some headphones, they become an elderly patient named Alfred. They then proceed to experience seven minutes of having their audio-visual impairments misdiagnosed as cognitive ones.
The headset includes a Leap Motion device that tracks and projects users’ hands in the story to make them feel like they’re Alfred. It is a full 360-degree virtual reality experience.
Students from many disciplines came together to create the entire story of Alfred. University of Illinois at Chicago engineering students Thomas Leahy and Jakub Borowski used programming techniques and development tools to put together footage and add simulations of medical issues such as severe macular degeneration or hearing loss.
“There were a lot of different, new technologies that we were trying to integrate together, and I think that was one of the biggest themes of our whole project,” said Leahy.
The group did a lot of troubleshooting and relied on each others’ expertise and ideas to solve problems and tackle challenges.
“I think there’s just so much strength in diversity,” Shaw said. “It speaks to the complexity of life. If you work in one discipline, it’s easy to focus in on that one thing, working with yourself, but if you can balance working across a group of people with different ideas and perspectives, what you create winds up looking a little bit more like the things we actually have to deal with in the world.”
The project won first place in the Art/Design/Humanities & Social Sciences Category among graduate student projects at the University of Illinois at Chicago Research Forum, as well as the Vesalius Trust Scholarship Award.