We all want to complete our bucket lists before we die, going on adventures and checking off the most magical sights. But sometimes, you just can't get to everything on the list. You get too ill to travel, or you're in a freak accident and your entire world has changed. That's where virtual reality's unique ability to transport you anywhere you want to be takes on an entirely new meaning.
Leon Ancliffe, managing director for Flix Films, had a dying friend who always regretted that they had never swam with dolphins. So he went ahead and put together a virtual reality film and tried it on his friend. It was a complete success, and it was this personal experience that gave him the idea to widen the scope. He then approached Royal Trinity Hospice in London, which he had worked with on other projects.
They turned him over to Letizia Perna-Forrest, Royal Trinity's head of patient and family support, who was intrigued by the idea. Perna-Forrest was trying to figure out if VR could be used to help with therapy, like that of burn victims, but in the end she decided to try it out on people who wanted to complete their bucket lists before they died.
We're (virtually) going to Disney World
One of the first cases was a 30-year-old woman who had always wanted to go to Disney World with her family, but she couldn't because of her health. Royal Trinity got a bunch of Daydream View headsets together and put her family through Disney World in VR.
"They all got to go to Disney World, so they went on rides, they watched the parade together," she says. "And they got to experience that as a family, so when the goggles came off and they got to talk to each other, 'Oh yeah, that was my favourite part, wasn't that cool when we saw that, wasn't that neat when we did that?'"
She got to leave a legacy and create some memories with her two kids before she died
Perna-Forrest says the woman, who has since passed away, got to leave a legacy and create some memories with her two kids before she died. She says there's more work to be done, though, on a study that Royal Trinity is working on to prove that virtual reality is a good tool for finishing bucket lists.
"The concept would be, potentially at the end of all this, to introduce virtual reality as a therapy, as a therapeutic intervention, across palliative care, across end of life – not just in hospices, but obviously also in hospitals hopefully," she says.
Royal Trinity and Flix Films have already received ethical approval from an external party, which is a good step, but a study on the subject could clarify a lot of questions that remain unanswered.
Lost in VR
The most pressing challenge is to find virtual reality tech that doesn't make the conditions of patients worse. Many people already experience things like nausea or headaches after going through a round of VR. People who are dying often have the same symptoms, so one challenge is using tech that's advanced enough to not exacerbate those symptoms.
It's also about managing how much it's used. Royal Trinity doesn't want a hospice filled with patients in VR headsets all day, like an episode of Black Mirror. Perna-Forrest says she wants it to be an option that's turned to sometimes – a form of therapy that can help approximately once a week. The bigger worry is that patients will like virtual reality a little too much. Why return to reality when the virtual world is so much more interesting and free of pain?
They agreed and put the goggles on her for three minutes. When she took them off, she started to cry.
There was one woman at Royal Trinity that wanted to go back to the Maldives, Perna-Forrest says, as she had been on holiday there before and felt at peace with the world. She asked if the crew could take her back there virtually. They agreed and put the goggles on her for three minutes. When she took them off, she started to cry.
"And we said 'Susie, what's going on? Can you tell us why you're tearful?' And she said 'There's something about when you're dying that you just want to reconnect with your old self and want to feel things that you used to feel. And for a moment, I felt joy. And joy is something that felt a big part of my life, for a very long time.'"
That's the positive version of such an emotional experience. Susie came back, still aware she had cancer but grateful to have experienced that feeling of joy one more time. Not everyone might react the same way though, and some might react in the opposite way, to use VR to avoid their reality for as long as possible. In fact, Perna-Forres says part of the research is to help identify how many people could react this way.
The study is now nearing completion, and in the meantime Flix Films and Royal Trinity have been working on other ways to use VR to help people, such as working on the issue of homelessness by helping healthcare practitioners to understand what it's like to be a homeless person. In the long term, though, Royal Trinity's priority is to use virtual reality to help people make the transition to death in the best possible way.
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