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Beyond your imagination: the transformative power of virtual reality technology

Beyond your imagination

Viarama owner Billy Agnew explains how VR has the uncanny ability to improve and benefit people's lives

When you think of virtual reality, your mind may automatically veer towards home gaming and low-budget arcade experiences. But Viarama, the world's first VR social enterprise, is changing perceptions while simultaneously making use of this up-and-coming technology in innovative and socially conscious ways.

Owner Billy Agnew explains: 'I decided the company had to be a social enterprise when I saw the effect VR had on many people; particularly the disabled and senior citizens. People were often crying tears of joy, and this emotional response is at the heart of everything we do, and it motivates us to do more. If you're a senior citizen who has always wanted to see Mount Everest but can't travel due to a disability, when you finally get there [in VR], it's going to be a hugely emotional experience.'

As a not-for-profit, Viarama are committed to working closely with community groups and the public, as well as creating VR experiences for government, industry, and the third sector which all have a strong social focus. Their East Linton-based venue features a VRally car, a plane, and four room-scale VR pods where users can take part in all kinds of amazing experiences in VR.

'At our venue, we might have a group of kids shooting robots in one pod and in the next pod, have a granny looking over the edge of a precipice in Yosemite,' Billy says. 'From a simple gaming perspective, a session is just tremendous fun. In terms of who can benefit, VR will eventually be used to help a wide variety of individuals. We were the first company in the world to take the VR we use into a hospice and we have found its use hugely beneficial to both the patient and their families, even at the most difficult of times. We are currently working on an experiment in partnership with Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, and St. Columba's Hospice to test the efficacy of VR in a clinical environment and we will be the first in the world to do this.'

Beyond your imagination

VR can certainly be hugely enjoyable and fun for anyone taking part in a session but Viarama have also worked with people that have greatly benefited from an individual experience, as Billy explains. 'There are so many examples I could give but the one that springs to mind is a lady called Elda who was in a hospice. Margaret was very ill and in considerable pain prior to her session. Her family were in the room with her, as were two doctors from the hospice, while we let her try a number of VR experiences, mostly centred around travel. The session lasted about 15 minutes and Margaret reported that she thought it was a wonderful experience, and that her perception of the pain she was in was significantly reduced. She smiled and seemed much more at ease after the session. Her son spoke to me afterwards and he was obviously very moved. He told me that he was very grateful to see his mum smiling as it had been so long since he had seen her like that.'

The idea of virtual reality may be relatively new to most people but Billy is hopeful that it will become more common due to the way that it can so positively impact people's lives in varying situations. 'I believe we will see that in years to come VR is ubiquitous in most care settings,' he notes. 'Education will be transformed by VR in so many wonderful ways and we want to see that happen soon.'

While Viarama have clear ideas and plans for the future in mind, their goals over the next few years are encouraging and inspiring to say the least. 'We want to train and employ more young people across Scotland, and want to work with as many schools, nursing homes, hospices, hospitals, and respite centres as we possibly can. We believe technology can be used as a force for good, and that VR in particular has the power to help people tremendously.

'We are working with Scottish Enterprise to create a VR experience that will help sufferers of Alzheimer's Disease and dementia and we're very excited about that. We hope to be able to attract funding in the near future to scale our operations significantly and hope that funders will be able to understand the power of VR and its potential to help people.

'Lastly we want to work with lots more people like Margaret and use the power of technology to make their lives a little better.'

Viarama, The Mart, Station Road, East Linton. Find out more at viarama.co.uk

Viarama Virtual Reality

The Mart, Station Road, East Linton, East Lothian, EH40 3DN

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