The WAYBACK Project: VR Helping People with Alzheimer’s

Using virtual reality (VR) to recreate popular and positive moments from the past, The WAYBACK Project is changing the lives of those with Alzheimer’s. Based in the United Kingdom, this project aims to help Alzheimer’s patients by allowing them to relive happy memories from the past.

Dan Cole, co-creator of the project, was inspired to do so by experiencing his own father battle with Alzheimer’s. Cole claims that when his dad developed early-stage Alzheimer’s, he often found himself “searching for things that might set off a conversation,” referencing old photographs and songs as pieces that occasionally sparked memories. Other times, however, he found that his father would be “in a different place” and that pulling him back to reality was not as easy.

One day when Cole was struggling to get a conversation started with his father, he decided to drive him through the North London streets where he grew up. Almost immediately, his father began to recall the streets he played in, the building his own father worked in, and the house he grew up in. When his father passed several weeks after this, Cole decided to start a project for Alzheimer’s sufferers that triggered memories in a similar manner.

Alongside fellow Grey London coworkers Andy Garnett and Howard Green, who also had loved one’s affected by the disease, Cole decided to use VR’s immersive experience to help those with Alzheimer’s. Struggling to get funding from charities, they created a Kickstarter page for The WAYBACK Project’s first video. In a matter of months, they raised an astounding 35,000 pounds, equivalent to nearly $50,000.

Produced by Thomas Thomas films, their first video is a 15-minute reenactment of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, portraying street parties, viewings of the coronation on TV, singing songs, and even a fancy-dress competition. In creating this video, Cole and his creative team did extensive research to make the experience as realistic as possible. For instance, conversations in the video reference Edmund Hillary conquering Mount Everest, a feat that occurred a day before the coronation and was a likely topic of discussion. He claims that minute details in conversations, clothing, food dishes, and music in the video are often what triggers memories in those watching.

Aside from the creators of The WAYBACK Project, many others involved with the video had loved ones affected by Alzheimer’s as well. Offering those who donated on Kickstarter roles in the film as compensation, Cole said that other than the 8 professional actors and actresses there were 160 extras who volunteered to partake. He stated, “Every single person really that was there, from the crew, from catering – every one of them sort of put their hands up and volunteered because it was a cause that was special to them.”

wayback projectEdited by MPC London, a company that has worked with Harry Potter films, the 3D video is extremely professional. The free app, developed by Grey London, can be viewed on any smartphone through cardboard VR goggles available for as low as $3. It is available for both Apple and Android devices.

Going forward, Cole states that Kickstarter is not a reliable long-term source of funding, with the second crowdfunding attempt failing to hit the target number. The WAYBACK Project is applying for grants and has recently become a finalist in the Challenge Dementia Prize competition. They have already received a microgrant from the competition, which Cole says they will use to test the efficacy of the simulation in different care homes.

If they win the 100,000-pound ($128,479.40) prize when the competition concludes in November, Cole claims that they will have enough money to make two more films. He hopes to make films for the 1960’s and 70’s, adding to the age range of Alzheimer’s patients the project can help. The creative team has already conceived a concept for a 1966 World Cup video, following one family for a week leading up to the game. Using information provided by BBC, they will again integrate very specific details pertaining to that time period to make the experience as nostalgic as possible.

wayback project

Cole states that The WAYBACK Project has been approached by various regions outside of the UK as well and hopes to expand the project to different areas. Australia, France, the US, and the Sikh community have all expressed interest in the project, with South Korea contacting the organization from a government-led dementia committee created by their president. Cole also spoke on armed forces expressing interest in creating a project for veterans with Alzheimer’s.

The WAYBACK Project is actively looking for backing in the UK and other markets where their product can reach those with Alzheimer’s. For more information you can reach their site at www.WaybackVR.com, email at [email protected], or twitter @The_Wayback_.

Link to full Coronation Day Street Party 1953 video. 

Jack recently graduated from Penn State University with a degree in Biology, and has a keen interest in how new medical technologies are changing the future of healthcare. Reach out to Jack if you have a compelling story idea or with feedback about past articles.