New VR technology will help improve the lives of people with dementia

High up in The Lighthouse in Glasgow, Scotland’s centre for design and architecture, and I’m invited to put on a virtual reality headset and take hold of a controller. I’m entering a residential development designed for people living with dementia. A push forward on the control stick and I walk through a living area, look into a bathroom and then open patio doors out onto a communal garden.

The experience is revelatory; a world of visual subtleties that could transform the way buildings and environments are designed. I’m shown how contrasts can be important, to better define spatial borders. Without them, the edge of a bed can merge with the surface of a floor. Colours too; a red bezel for hot, blue for cold. Simple design cues that used to be standard but have been too casually discarded. Sometimes though, a proliferation of colours can confuse; for example, outside, paving stones of a different hue might suggest to someone with dementia a step when there is none.

And then, off-stage, a switch is thrown by my guide and I see this same environment through the eyes of someone living with dementia. Suddenly, my peripheral vision is much darker and those visual signals which have been pointed out by my guide become so much more important. It is then that I begin to understand the stress that can be caused by a lack visual certainty and a horizon that is significantly dimmed.

It is why a combination of expertise in architectural design, mental health and virtual reality has resulted in a technology that it is hoped will significantly benefit people living with dementia. The designers of the ‘virtual reality empathy platform’ (VR-EP) say that it could improve the layout of care homes, hospitals and sheltered housing, as well as assist in the assessment of existing buildings and environments.

People living with dementia can see things very differently, with objects often appearing hazier and less colourful, which can cause confusion and distress. The technology’s developers say that it allows building designers to experience how dementia affects vision, so that they can create spaces better suited to people living with the condition. They believe that creating homely and familiar environments could reduce accidents, lessen anxiety and help those living with dementia live more inclusive and independent lives.

More than 800,000 people in the UK are living with the condition and this is expected to rise to 1.7m by 2051. Dementia costs the UK economy £26.3bn per year, more than cancer and heart disease combined. Poor dementia care in hospitals is estimated to result in an additional cost to the NHS of more than £260m a year. In 2013/14 falls in hospital of people with dementia were estimated to cost the NHS at least £15.9m. By using VR-EP the risks can be more easily identified and ‘designed out’.

“One of the biggest challenges for researchers, trainers and consultants in dementia design, is how you convey the experience of the environment for people living with dementia,” said Professor Mary Marshall, senior consultant at HammondCare’s Dementia Centre. “This device has the potential to be immensely beneficial for researchers, commissioners, architects and interior designers, and many other professionals in this field.”

It is the brainchild of David Burgher, director at Borders-based Aitken Turnbull Architects, who developed it with HammondCare, a leader in dementia support, and Glasgow-based computer generated imagery company Wireframe Immersive. “It’s a revolutionary new platform. Imagine being able to see the world through another person’s eyes, and use that information to influence design that can positively impact their life.

“At Aitken Turnbull we have many years of experience in designing buildings for the elderly and for people living with dementia and have gained valuable insight into the condition, allowing us to empathise with those who live with it,” said Burgher. “As well as reducing anxiety, the improved design offers a better, safer and more independent quality of life,” he said. “Dementia-friendly design doesn’t have to cost more. In fact, by using VR-EP, designers will get it right first time and therefore reduce costs.”

The VR-EP product comprises a laptop with high performance graphic and memory capability, a VR headset, a games controller, camera and bespoke software programming. It was developed with £50,000 of funding from Scottish Enterprise. With support from the Scottish Council for Development and Industry and Scottish Development International, Aitken Turnbull Architects and Wireframe Immersive are aiming to export the technology to Europe, China and the United States.

“VR-EP is leading edge technology being developed by Scottish companies and a fantastic example of how virtual reality can be used to improve quality of life,” said Kevin Gordon, business development manager at Wireframe Immersive. The scale of dementia and its associated costs is colossal, not just in the UK but across the globe. VR-EP could also be adapted to simulate other sensory impairments and be used across a spectrum of disorders, so its potential is enormous.”

David McHoul, innovation specialist at Scottish Enterprise added: “This project is another great example of Scotland’s strengths in innovation and our support will help develop this ground-breaking dementia design and empathy platform to service a patient group which is globally under-serviced. Initial research shows there is a strong demand for this product on an international scale and the VR-EP device will make a profound impact in improving the environment for those living with dementia.”

The series of pictures shows:

Unconsidered design from the point of view of someone without dementia: This is a standard healthcare setting design from the point of view of someone without dementia. The signage appears at eye level which is difficult to see for someone who has poor neck muscles and doesn’t understand they need to look up. The bedside light is not easily recognisable as a light.


Unconsidered design with dementia: The standard healthcare setting design from the point of view of someone with dementia. The neutral tones appear bland and potentially indistinguishable for someone living with dementia; for example, the bed becomes more difficult to distinguish from the floor and wall, which is a potential falls risk.



Dementia-friendly without dementia: Note the use of contrasting colours to give shape and definition to objects. Signage has been moved to lower than eye level to help with better wayfaring. Items such as bedside lamps and clocks are familiar, recognisable and homely. Pictures on wall also give the room structure.


Dementia-friendly with dementia: Note how the use of contrasting colours keep the proportions and items in the rooms more distinct. The bed now appears easily distinguishable and recognisable because of the strong contrast wall.