It may be an overused proverb, but it's a good one: "Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I will remember. Involve me and I will understand." That's the definitely the thinking behind Virtual Dementia Experience, a virtual reality system created by four multimedia graduates from Australia's Swinburne University. It provides caregivers with an interactive simulation of what it's like to suffer from dementia, so they can better understand what their patients are experiencing.

The project began in 2013, when the university was approached by Alzheimer’s Australia. Students were asked to help come up with methods of building empathy for people with dementia, the lack of which was deemed "a key barrier in improving the quality of dementia care."

Liam McGuire, James Bonner, Chris Mackenzie and Norman Wang responded by using the Unreal Game Engine to create Virtual Dementia Experience, or VDE. The present incarnation can be used on Microsoft Kinect or the Oculus Rift, although a mobile version is being developed for use on any smartphone equipped with Google Cardboard or a similar product.

While VDE can't necessarily replicate the memory problems that are a key part of dementia, it is intended to reproduce the accompanying perceptual distortions of reality. "It transforms your physical environment and surrounds, to transport healthy people into the shoes of those with dementia," Swinburne's Alyx Williams tells us. "The room blurs, objects appear to be moving."

The system has been installed at the Dementia Learning Centre in Melbourne, where it has already been used to train over 2,000 caregivers – there's currently a 6-month waiting list to use it. According to research conducted by Alzheimer’s Australia and Stanford University, people who have trained on the system have proceeded to deliver improved care to their patients.

VDE recently won the World Citizenship Award at Microsoft's Imagine Cup, and is being developed commercially by Swinburne spin-off company Opaque Multimedia. Along with its use by caregivers, it is also hoped that people such as public officials, medical researchers and architects may make use of the software.

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