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It's Impossible To Simulate Life With Alzheimer's, But Google Is Trying

By hacking our senses, a new VR app shows how dementia can feel from the inside.

It's Impossible To Simulate Life With Alzheimer's, But Google Is Trying

[All Images: Alzheimer’s Research UK/Visyon]

Milk, bread, sugar. That’s all I had to buy at the store. I didn’t recognize the place, but walking through, this wasn’t so tough. Milk, bread, sugar. I grabbed one of each and placed them into my basket. Easy!

At least that’s what I thought, until I made it to the checkout counter. I looked down at my basket again, and I realized, it was overflowing with cookies. Cookies that I don’t even remember seeing on the shelf. My son yelled at me while I tried to pay with proper change. And when I looked back up at the store I’d just walked through, the aisles were arranged completely differently.

In case it wasn’t clear to me earlier, living with Alzheimer’s disease is terrible.

I’m experiencing A Walk Through Dementia, a Google Cardboard app by the nonprofit Alzheimer's Research UK, Visyon, and Google UK. The app’s premise is simple: It’s a simulator that provides a very subjective view of life with dementia. Rather than go the WebMD route and simply list symptoms like short-term memory loss, the challenge of recognizing faces, or lost depth perception, the app puts you in the shoes of someone with dementia to learn how such phenomena can make the world very confusing—or even terrifying.

The app opens with a brief video explaining its intent. Then you can try three different scenarios as someone living with dementia—shopping at the store, walking home, and making tea for friends. These scenarios vary between live action, 360-degree videos, and fully rendered, video game-like experiences. But they all invariably work because they don’t just place the viewer into the first person and tell an otherwise normal narrative story; they also use this opportunity to aggressively toy with your perception of that story. And that perceptual manipulation, in essence, becomes the story of life with dementia.

Walking home from the store with my son, he takes a call on the corner, while I keep walking—I’m sure my house is just a bit down the block. Quickly, a voice over says I’m lost. I look at a man walking toward me. Is he my son? Is he a stranger? Their faces toggle on the same body in my confusion—a forced effect is a bit heavy-handed with art direction, perhaps, but clearly confusing nonetheless, and an embodiment of what it’s like to have no idea if someone is a stranger or not.

A more striking moment happens as I reunite with my son, and he approaches a sinkhole right in the middle of the sidewalk. He’s so casual about it! So blindly naive! I warn him as he gets closer and closer to dropping into the abyss, and that’s when he tells me, it’s a puddle. My lack of depth perception was playing tricks on me.

While Hollywood-types continue to find their footing in VR storytelling, many VR zealots firmly believe that there’s a deeper possibility for the platform, that it could be the ultimate empathy simulator. Indeed, many of VR's best experiences have been built not for mass culture but to highlight somewhat niche interests. Maybe that’s why nonprofits have done such good things with VR already, mostly in the name of raising money, from placing you into a classroom in Africa, to the front lines of the AIDS epidemic.

A Walk Through Dementia is admittedly a bit crude in its implementation, lacking the polish of the best VR apps. But it does manage to tell a fascinating story through another person’s eyes. And in doing so, it highlights VR’s greatest advantage as a storytelling tool: that in having full control of our perception, our perception can be hacked to make the empathy flow.

You can try A Walk Through Dementia via a free app with Google Cardboard and an Android phone. The 360-degree videos are also on YouTube.

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