Sheffield Hallam develops VR world to improve mental health in older

21st July 2023

Sheffield Hallam University has teamed up with Age UK Sheffield, Innerva and Pixelmill Digital to launch Planet Wellbeing, a virtual reality world designed to alleviate loneliness and mental health issues in older adults.

Planet Wellbeing allows people to use physical movement to connect with others and enjoy fun and engaging activities, such as dancing and playing games, in a virtual environment. 

It is being developed in close consultation with older adults to meet their needs and ensure everyone, regardless of physical ability, can access the solution. 

The project will assess the effect of the virtual world on users’ mental wellbeing, including loneliness, depression and anxiety, as well as general quality of life.

The project is funded through Innovate UK’s 2023 Mindset Extended Reality for Digital Mental Health competition. The scheme aims to facilitate the development of new solutions that use immersive technologies to improve the delivery of mental health and wellbeing services. 

Loneliness is a major issue in modern society. According to Age UK, 1.4 million older people in the UK are often lonely. Chronic loneliness has been linked to poor mental and physical health. 

Dr Ben Heller, associate professor at Sheffield Hallam University’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre, said: “This work builds on research we have been conducting for over a decade that has demonstrated how older people can be motivated to exercise more through fun, social activities in virtual worlds. 

“It ties in very well with the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre’s goal to improve health and wellbeing through movement.” 

Sheffield Hallam’s Centre for Loneliness Studies, led by Professor Andrea Wigfield, is also also involved in the project.  

Jon Hymus, commercial director of power-assisted exercise specialist Innerva, said: “Loneliness and social isolation have a significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of older adults. With Planet Wellbeing we aim to address this issue by providing a virtual world that is safe, engaging and inclusive.”

Vin Sumner, CEO at PixelMill Digital said: “Having worked in the field of immersive technology for over 15 years, PixelMill is excited about the opportunity through Planet Wellbeing to develop an application that will help improve the lives of those suffering from loneliness.” 

Teresa Barker, chief executive of Age UK Sheffield, said: “We’re excited to be part of this consortium and to work with leading experts in the field to develop Planet Wellbeing. We believe that this virtual world has the potential to revolutionise the way we approach mental health and wellbeing for older adults.”

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