When talking about any serious disease, scientists’ work in the lab is only part of the equation. Increasing the public’s collective understanding of the disease is another. As a recent study by the organization Alzheimer’s Research UK shows, may people still mistake dementia with forgetfulness in the elderly, not knowing that the disease is in fact driven by physical damage in the brain. Given that 45 million people live with dementia worldwide—and this number is set to triple by 2050—increasing public awareness is important not only for achieving faster diagnoses, but also creating understanding for dementia patients and their families and friends.

The challenge that usually arises is how to talk about a disease in an engaging and captivating manner without being frightening or grim. Alzheimer’s Research UK has turned to VR in hopes that the new technology could help create some buzz around the topic while allowing people to step into a dementia sufferer’s shoes.

The end product is a series of thee experiences entitled A Walk Through Dementia that take you through the everyday struggles of a person with dementia, including buying groceries, getting back home from the store, and making tea for your family. The series uses a combination of computer-generated environments and 360-degree video sequences.

Due to very skillful narration by actress Dame Harriet Walter, who herself lost both parents to dementia, the experiences do not feel voyeuristic. Her voice, disguised as your own thoughts, guide you through various tasks, making it easier for you to understand what to pay attention to and how to interpret the changing surroundings. It also adds the necessary self-awareness aspect to the piece, making it clear that you are, in fact, only in a staged reality. 

A Walk Through Dementia was not the first timeAlzheimer’s Research UK used creative technologies to help their research. Last month, together with game studio Glitchers, scientists from UCL and University of East Anglia, and T-Mobile, they released a mobile game, Sea Hero Quest, which helps scientists gather important data that can further their research. The game tests spatial imagination, orientation, and memory while remaining visually stunning and attractive as a game in its own right. By playing the game for only two minutes, you can give the scientist the equivalent of data that would have taken them five hours to collect, which means that if 100,000 people play the game for two minutes each, they generate the equivalent of fifty years of research.