University of Melbourne

Virtual friends a new answer to social isolation

THREE-dimensional avatars socialising in a virtual world to help counter older adult social isolation is on its way through the use of cutting-edge technology and Australian know-how.

University of Melbourne researchers are working with a group of older Australians to test how virtual worlds and interaction techniques, that are suited to older adults, can help support breaking down the barriers to online social participation.

The researchers are using touch-screen reality technology to create experiences that allow older adults to meet and take part in meaningful social activities, no matter where they are located.

Research fellow Dr Steven Baker explained, "I'm not suggesting that virtual reality and avatars is some sort of replacement for face-to-face conversation.

"Those conversations are vitally important; we all need to have human contact.

"The thing that excites us about using virtual worlds and avatars, their properties are more like having a conversation face-to-face with another person, even though that person is an avatar." 

A full body avatar.
A full body avatar. University of Melbourne

Using avatars which are a 3D representation of people which have been mapped by replicating real body movements, 25 members of the technology explorers group, all aged 70 and over, have been helping the researchers develop an understanding as to the practicality of the project and how older people can benefit from it.

Imagine a group of people sitting around a pool on a tropical island, dangling their feet in the water, chatting among the palm trees, surfboards propped up in the sand behind them. The only thing is, the people are three-dimensional avatars communicating in a virtual world.

Through the avatar, a user chooses how they are represented in the virtual world which helps protect their privacy. For many older adults who are hesitant about using social media, this is expected to be an important consideration for them in utilising the technology.

The researchers also aware of the need to incorporate older adult natural gestures into how the avatar acts.

"Participants feel as though the voices of older adults are often just not heard and one of the things they're really loving about this workshop process is that they're being asked what they think about things, and then they see that being reflected in the designs that we come up with," Dr Baker said.

A close up the face of one of the avatars.
A close up the face of one of the avatars. University of Melbourne

The next phase of the project is to design two new virtual worlds which the technology explorers will be able to test out and help modify. One is a bridge game where the avatars can play a game of bridge. The other one will be called the Highway of Life and will be where avatars will be able to go back in time to view and leave digital artefacts, and to discuss memories.

Dr Baker wants to see the research outcomes, which are expected be completed by 2019, lead to commercial systems that allowed older adults to participate in social experiences with people no matter where they are located.

He also sees this project helping move the existing virtual reality systems that are already in several aged care facilities, from passive to interactive and active. 

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