We are tackling social isolation and loneliness with ground-breaking virtual reality (VR) experiences that allow people to feel like they are sharing the same environment.

Human beings are social creatures. As we age, many of us develop mobility issues, leaving us vulnerable to social isolation, loneliness, and related health problems such as cognitive decline, depression, and heart disease. Conversely, evidence shows that people who engage in productive activities with others tend to live longer, report better mood quality, and have a sense of purpose.

The Australian Research Centre for Interactive and Virtual Environments (IVE) at the University of South Australia saw the opportunity to tackle the difficult and increasingly pressing problem of social isolation using the specialist research and technical skills of our Empathic Computing Lab (ECL) team.

IVE is collaborating with ECH – Aged Care Services, Lateral Vision and Envisage AR to use Virtual Reality (VR) to facilitate meaningful shared social experiences that are accessible to older Australians affected by social isolation.

the toll of social isolation and loneliness

In Australia, almost one-quarter of older adults living independently within the community are socially isolated, while 47% of all adults 65 years and older report feeling lonely. This is a life-threatening issue faced by Australia’s ageing population. Research also shows that social isolation in later life is associated with a significantly increased risk of premature mortality.

ECH is one of the country’s largest not-for-profit providers of services that help people age in place. The organisation supports people to continue living independently at home as they age and provides opportunities for clients to take part in social activities. However, many of their clients are unable to leave home because of mobility requirements and are consequently at risk of social isolation and loneliness. IVE and ECH set out to reduce loneliness and social isolation for these older Australians by developing technology that enables them to engage virtually in shared social outings.

virtual reality as a community connector

IVE’s ECL team collaborated with Envisage AR and Lateral Vision to develop a web-based virtual tour platform. The platform uses live and pre-recorded 360-degree video and still images to allow people to collectively experience a remote location as a group, while physically remaining in their individual homes. As the group undertakes the virtual tour, the platform enables the participants to talk to each other and interact. In this way, technology facilitates social connection by bringing older people together for shared experiences that aren’t dependent on mobility. The tour content can be experienced using a range of different devices – such as a laptop or desktop computer, tablet or phone, or VR headset.

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Older people who live independently at home are the primary beneficiaries of the virtual reality tour technology. Those who are unable to engage with social programs such as bus excursions because of mobility issues will still have access to shared experiences through the platform, allowing them to maintain social connections and be part of a community. By reducing their risk of social isolation and loneliness, the technology will concurrently improve the related health consequences.

As early user studies are being conducted with older Australians, the IVE team is also exploring how this technology might be applied in other industries, including use by NDIS providers. Our industry partners, Lateral Vision, and Envisage AR are capitalising on the research investment with plans to develop a commercial service using the virtual tour technology.

“The in-depth and extensive knowledge and experience of the Empathic Computing Lab (ECL) team is pivotal to the success of this project. Mark, Gun, and their team bring research and technical acumen together to conceive, test, iterate and deliver innovative technology solutions. Technology such as AR, VR, and virtual tours have the ability to solve some of the big challenges we face in society, and this is evidenced in the research being conducted at the ECL.”

Laura Tolson
Co-founder and Director
Lateral Vision


For more information or to discuss potential projects contact: Mark.Billinghurst@unisa.edu.au