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Second Lives for the Third Age (SL3A)

Lead investigators Dr Ben Heller
Funded by Engineering for Life, CLAHRC
Dates 01/07/2010 – 31/12/2012

It is well known that exercise is essential throughout the lifecourse to preserve the key functions such as strength and balance that help to support high quality, independent living. Older people are often prevented from accessing exercise activities for reasons of frailty, cost and transport or because the activities may not be age or culturally appropriate. As well as losing exercise benefits, they are also deprived of the associated cognitive and social stimuli.

There is a move towards more physical activity in computer games with devices such as the Eye-Toy, the Wii and the Kinect. However, these games are not designed for older people and the movements they require do not have specific rehabilitation benefits. To resolve this, we designed an interface to detect older users’ physical movements and used these to control avatar movements in Second Life – a massively multi-player rich virtual world. Our interface allows therapists to stipulate specific movements from the older users in order to interact with the virtual environment, and allows users to perform complex activities in the virtual world without requiring conventional IT skills. Examples of mapped movements included users marching on the spot to walk and flapping their arms and leaning in the direction of desired movement to fly. The difficulty of these movements is adjustable as ability improves or declines. The ease-of-use, age-appropriate virtual activities and social nature of the world encourage older people to participate

We surveyed a group of older people to explore what activities they would like to enact in a virtual world. We then prototyped an age appropriate garden environment in Second Life and piloted it with a small group of older users. Information was collected on the users’ experiences of using both the conventional and new interfaces. This has informed improvements in the design of the physical interface.

Impact

The initial work was performed using a relatively expensive laboratory-based technology. The recent advent of Microsoft’s Kinect controller has allowed us to reduce the equipment costs by two orders of magnitude and transfer this work out of the laboratory.

There is recognition that we have to change our healthcare model to a more sustainable one based on prevention and self-care, remotely supported by health-care professionals. Whilst not being designed as a replacement for real-life interaction, our system allows older people unable to access conventional provision to still benefit from exercise therapy and social interaction. In addition to the use of this system for recreation and therapy, it can also provide an intuitive way to access a variety of essential online services including social and health care, shopping and life-long learning.

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