Virginia Anderlini is 103 years old, and she is about to take her sixth trip into virtual reality.
In real life, she is sitting on the sofa in the bay window of her San Francisco assisted-living facility. Next to her, Dr. Sonya Kim gently tugs the straps that anchor the headset over Anderlini’s eyes.
But in the virtual world, Anderlini is on a Hawaiian beach, and it’s sunset, and she is surrounded by a glistening sea and a molten, purple-red sky. If she looks up, she sees the fronds of an enormous palm tree, and falling rainbow specks that dance in the air like the light from a disco ball.
“Hello, it’s so nice to see you again,” comes Kim’s prerecorded voice from inside the headset. “It’s such a beautiful day today, isn’t it?”
“Oh my goodness!” says Anderlini, sounding delighted. She turns her head slowly from side to side, taking in the details of the virtual landscape: little grass shacks, twists of driftwood, outcroppings of volcanic rock. “Hey, that’s really pretty!”
For a virtual reality entrepreneur, Kim has an unusual target audience: the elderly. Anderlini is the first private client for Kim’s Aloha VR program, which Kim envisions as a way to help people relax, an alternative to endlessly watching TV and a change of scenery for those who can’t get out much.
And for those unhappy in the present day, virtual reality might provide an escape into an immersive other world that “allows them to forget their chronic pain, anxiety, the fact that they are alone,” Kim says. In VR, she says, her company has found “a new care modality to bring to a senior care setting like this, to inspire them to live another day, where they’re happy.”