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Tricuro: Virtual reality can change lives in social care

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Whilst many challenges within social care have been the same for the past 20 years – increasing in scale and exacerbated by funding pressures and the rolling saga of health and social care integration – technology has quietly revolutionised the world in which it is delivered.

  • Project: Virtual reality
  • Objectives: To explore the use of virtual reality to create stimulating, immersive and person-centred experiences for relaxation, mindfulness, wellbeing and reminiscence
  • Timescale: Three months
  • Cost to authority: Managed within daily operational costs
  • Number of staff working on project: One project manager and two day services officers
  • Outcomes: Over 100 clients taken through virtual reality experiences across residential and day services, partnership with leading international virtual reality start-up to conduct trials in pain management, wellbeing and structured reminiscence, validated by Harvard, Stanford and Yale universities in the US
  • Officer contact details: Richard Dolan, head of innovation and technology, Tricuro

The term ‘assistive technology’ is a mainstay of occupational therapy lexicon, still defined by the royal commission on long term care (1999) as “any device or system that allows an individual to perform a task that they would otherwise be unable to do, or increases the ease and safety with which the task can be performed”. This definition is incredibly broad, covering anything from elasticated waistbands to automated door systems.

Technology now offers many ways of assisting or enhancing care, changing the way in which we support people. In tandem with these digital developments, generational shifts are seeing technology adoption increase, as baby boomers give way to generation x and the world around us becomes ‘digital by default’.

Amid this digital watershed, a technology that has had several attempts at establishing itself in the lives of consumers is emerging that will allow people to have a person-centred experience, to access something that makes a difference to their lives, to do what they can’t and to go where they wish. This is virtual reality.

With innovation as a core value at Tricuro, we are exploring how emerging technology can enhance the client experience, creating bespoke, immersive experiences that connect with people in a meaningful way. Using virtual reality, we have seen unprecedented results beyond our expectations and proved beyond doubt this technology has a place in health and social care.

Initially we experimented with a virtual reality headset (obtained at zero cost through a collaboration), including virtual reality in our travel and culture sessions to put clients in front of the Eiffel Tower or other cultural landmarks. With over 6,500 clients of varying need across Dorset, we wanted to better understand where the most value could be obtained, and what the barriers to adoption were.

Our initial testing had identified there were some cultural challenges. Whilst virtual reality is increasingly accessible, it was seen by some as a novelty, and often support staff were reluctant to engage due to a lack of understanding. To overcome this and make it accessible and relatable, we designed an approach which we could take on a roadshow: an entry level experience that people could engage with as they chose.

Taking the idea of a sensory session using physical objects, we designed what came to be known as the virtual beach. As well as items you would expect to find at the beach – sand, shells, seaweed, driftwood and so on – we used a deckchair and windbreak to create a makeshift installation instantly recognisable to any client, regardless of age or level of need.

The final element was the inclusion of the virtual reality headset, within which we had curated several beach related scenarios filmed in 360-degree video – a stroll along the white sands of Mauritius, the gentle lapping of water in a sun-soaked cove, or a sun setting on a tropical beach.

From previous engagement, we identified 10 sites including our Plus day services for needs like dementia or mental health, and our Connect services which offer integrated community support, in addition to several residential homes specialising in dementia.

Over two weeks a programme of installations was planned and set up, with one day services officer on hand to guide clients and staff through the experiences.

Despite some initial trepidation, 97% of clients who tried had a positive experience, ranging from mild enjoyment to significantly physical and emotional changes in presentation. The appetite from clients was also far greater than anticipated, and whilst many enjoyed the beach, the requests flooded in for more immersive, engaging experiences, like driving, flying, or safari.

When we had a client of 99 years surfing a giant wave off the coast of Hawaii we realised the virtual beach installation had quickly served its purpose, and we were witnessing a significant shift in how we understood the role technology can play in delivering care and support.

Often the biggest challenge with technology is that in the rush to extol the virtues of some new software or hardware, the very people it impacts are forgotten. In this case the feedback from staff and clients was overwhelmingly positive, and we captured so many genuine reactions. To help tell that story to a wider audience we made this video, now posted on YouTube.

Our work with virtual reality continues at pace. We have partnered with a leading start-up out of Palo Alto, California, to conduct a six-month pilot using their cutting-edge platform designed for clinical use, but with huge application to our client base.

The ability to instantly transport clients to anywhere in the world opens opportunities for reminiscence work with our dementia clients. Meanwhile, the prevalence of virtual reality for pain management also allows us to explore benefits and efficiencies relating to health and social care.

Keeping our clients happier and healthier for longer is the goal, and virtual reality and other emerging tech gives new tools to explore new and alternative ways of achieving this.

Ultimately the message here isn’t just about the tech. It’s about how you use it.

Innovation isn’t something you need a huge budget to do – it’s about doing something differently to achieve a better outcome. At Tricuro we have achieved this through passion, commitment and a little ingenuity, and the next year will see us try things that only a couple of years ago would be dismissed as gimmicks, or things older people wouldn’t do.

Richard Dolan, head of innovation and technology, Tricuro. Tricuro is a social care provider owned by Dorset CC, Bournmeouth BC and the Borough of Poole.

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