Elders’ escape: Seniors travel the world in new virtual-reality class

Elders’ escape: Seniors travel the world in new virtual-reality class
Photo by Jordan Rathkopf

Call it a new kind of reality check.

Bay Ridge oldsters can now see the world without leaving Southern Brooklyn thanks to a new weekly virtual-reality class that debuted at a neighborhood senior center last month. Elders previously intimidated by technology are especially amazed by the program at the Bay Ridge Center at Bethlehem Lutheran Church on Fourth and Ovington avenues, according to the class instructor.

“The seniors will often say, ‘I’m not good at technology, I’m not into it, I don’t like it,’ ” said Rachael Marotta. “But once you show them, they think it’s really cool.”

Six lucky seniors who sign up early enough get to spend an hour each week wearing large goggles and headphones connected to an iPhone that projects three-dimensional, interactive videos of real-world scenarios — including strolls through the streets of Paris, Hong Kong, London, and Berlin — while Marotta guides them through what they’re seeing and helps with technical glitches.

The instructor primarily uses the Ascape and New York Times virtual-reality apps in the class, which the elderly participants have also used to visually walk with a trio of orphaned elephants in Botswana; visit the traditional Hindu festival Holi, the Festival of Colors, in India; and sail with dolphins off the coast of California.

But the seniors have also seen more affecting videos, Marotta said, including one on the Times app that tells the stories of displaced people fleeing war in southern Sudan, and another that shows the plights of Syrian refugees in camps.

“Most of the videos are more fun or informative rather than serious, but we definitely do some that are serious as well,” she said.

One Ridge oldster who attended the class said she most liked that she felt as if she was traveling the world without leaving her chair.

“It’s very enjoyable, and you don’t have to go so far,” said Beatrice Carman, after viewing the Holi Festival.

Another said the videos left him almost speechless, while inspiring his future travel plans at the same time.

“It’s beautiful,” said Antoine Metwalli. “I cannot say anything except it’s amazing. It’s beautiful to see before I go to travel so I get an idea of where to go.”

Most of the elders in the class generally share the feeling of being transported to another time and place, according to Marotta.

“They feel like they’re really there,” she said. “And some of them are world travelers, some of them are not, so it’s been interesting to hear some people say, ‘I’ve been there before,’ when others have never left the U.S.”

Marotta launched the class with the help of former Councilman Vincent Gentile’s $20,000 “Digital Inclusion” grant, which also funded a “tech fair” at the center last spring, and a weekly brain-focused computer-game class, taught by Marotta, that also debuted last month. Funding for the virtual-reality class lasts through June, but the center hopes to secure additional money to keep it going, according to the facility’s deputy executive director, Todd Fliedner.

The virtual-reality experience helps the seniors develop greater empathy and awareness for different people and cultures around the world, even as it makes them more comfortable with using technology, Marotta said.

“I think it really helps connect people, and it’s really interesting because seniors are kind of the people who are least likely to use technology, but they’re the group of people who can benefit the most.” she said.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcsh[email protected]nglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.