Scitech Now Episode 423

In this episode of SciTech Now, we explore the virtual world at the largest VR Entertainment center; a wearable device that guides the visually impaired; an online senior center creating a platform for socialization from the comfort of home; and a look at researchers in Texas, who are analyzing Alzheimer’s disease and the role of our brain’s neurons.

TRANSCRIPT

Coming up, exploring the virtual world...

People are constantly taken out of what they thought was possible for them to do.

...a wearable guides the visually impaired...

We wanted to do something that was so intuitive that, like, we could just give people the device and they could figure out the direction on their own without any instructions or prior experiences.

...tech friendships...

We said, what if we were to use technology to essentially bring the senior center services to people in their home?

...finding the root of Alzheimer's.

My research lab focus on the understanding, the basic mechanism, to why does this happen, and then why neurons die in the Alzheimer's patient's brain.

It's all ahead.

Hello, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

VR World NYC is the largest VR entertainment center in the Western Hemisphere.

In this segment, we take a step inside VR world and see how visitors are exploring an entirely different reality.

Our partner 'Science Friday' has the story.

Where the technology is at right now, it's amazing.

Even the most basic gaming experience really can make you examine the consensus reality, and -- and that, to me, has the ability to really transform how we interact with, not only entertainment, but technology.

♪♪ My name is Tommy Goodkin.

And I'm the head of content at VR World NYC.

My job is to curate the best VR experiences, and that definitely involves a lot of VR gaming.

VR World is the largest VR entertainment center in the Western Hemisphere.

At its very core, we're offering people experiences that you would expect from a theme park rather than something like an arcade, whether it's like riding a roller coaster, or something that really, you know, raises your adrenalin.

A lot of people judge the entire VR industry based off of one bad experience they had in the very beginning, whether it was they got nauseous or the game play was just really basic.

But in the last three years, this technology has made jumps and strides, in terms of mitigating nausea, in terms of resolution, and conveying a really high quality experience.

People are still getting familiar with this technology, and people are often skeptical, but we really have to kind of gently ease people into using it.

Okay, you lean too forward.

Stand straight.

Because there's not really a mountain right in front of you.

Okay.

So, don't lean forward.

VR World, it stands in contradiction to the isolating elements of VR.

There's the social component, there's the competitive component.

Our space is really designed to facilitate socialization.

We like to use the like pool hall metaphor here, where, you know, you could get a pool table at home, but that wouldn't really prohibit you from going out to a bar and playing pool with your friends.

We really get a mixed bag of all different types of customers, so it's important to have something that can appeal to each different person that comes into the space, but we also have a strong emphasis on things that are a little bit off the beaten path.

The ICAROS Flight Simulator, it's a six-degree-of-freedom flight simulator.

So, you get on, you strap yourself in, and you're maneuvering it around, so it's really a strenuous workout.

Ooh, this is pretty.

And also terrifying!

Uh, Richie's Plank Experience is you going up 50 flights, and you get to the final floor, and you walk out the window on a very thin piece of wood.

And the physics are quite convincing there.

It's like the real deal.

People are constantly taken out of, you know, what they thought was possible for them to do.

We had this, uh, older lady in a wheelchair, and watching her like, reach up above her head, and pull herself through this mountain, giddy, laughing, it's one of the most beautiful experiences I think someone can have in VR.

People come in and play a lot of games and leave total VR crusaders.

I think this will absolutely, um, become a common fixture in major downtown centers, just based off the success that the early arcades have seen.

Technology and VR is going to change experiential location-based entertainment.

♪♪ ♪♪

Technology for the blind tends to rely heavily on auditory cues to convey information.

Now, WearWorks, a Brooklyn, New York-based technology company, is developing a device that communicates to the visually impaired through touch.

Joining us is the CEO and co-founder of WearWorks, Keith Kirkland.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you for having me.

So, what do we have here?

What do you got?

So, this is the Wayband, and this is a wearable tactile navigation device for the blind and visually impaired.

Basically, we figured out a way to guide people to an end-destination using only vibration, without the need for any visual or audio cues at all.

Okay, so, somebody, uh, a visually impaired person would put this on their -- it looks like it's an arm band -- and what are the kind of -- what's the feedback that they would be getting through it to tell them to turn left or turn right?

And so, what most companies have done in this space is, they've either used two separate devices, a left device and a right device, to tell you to turn left, to turn right.

Or they've used a set of different vibration patterns, two buzzes, left, three buzzes, right.

We wanted to do something that was so intuitive that like, we could just give people the device, and they could figure out the direction on their own without any instructions or prior experiences.

Okay.

And so, we've designed this kind of -- you know, this haptic corridor.

It basically gives you the sensation that you're walking down an invisible hallway that you can feel the edges of, and as you get to the corners, you can feel the edges of the next part of the corridor.

But let me put this in -- in practical terms.

They're walking down the sidewalk, and there's other people.

Are those other people part of, are they intruding, or coming into and out of that corridor that you're talking about?

No, no, so like, so right now, there's two issues around navigation for blind people.

One, is kind of like microscale, like the idea of avoiding the people that are around you -- the fire hydrant, the poles, things like that, and their cane skills and their dog and mobility training skills really help with that.

The part that we're looking at is like macroscale wayfinding.

Like, the dog or the cane doesn't help you to get to the post office, or to the coffee shop to meet your friend.

You could say that there's almost like a -- a Google Maps, or a Waze something that helps you plot these longer paths on how you walk, and you're -- you're not trying to replace the cane or the dog, per se, but you're helping them see places that they couldn't get to in the past.

Exactly.

Like, right now, most blind people use audio navigation.

Um, and audio navigation's a really great aid for them.

But the thing is, is that for blind people, their ears are almost like their eyes.

It's their primary sense for taking in, you know, environmental information, and it's how they keep themselves safe, and understand what's going on around them.

And so, having someone constantly talk into your ear might make you miss cues in the environment that are really important.

So, what kind of -- what kind of feedback is that actually giving you?

Are these pulses?

Yeah, I was about to say, actually, if you don't mind, I can show you real quick.

Sure.

Yeah.

And so, we built a custom application.

Okay.

Um, it's called Wayband.

Yeah.

And so, you launch the app, and you kind of get a map of kind of like the location of where you are, right?

Sure.

And so, I'll give -- I'll let you try the -- the arm device on.

Okay.

No worries.

I pull it over your suit jacket.

Call it the forearm device.

No problem.

All right.

Okay.

Okay, I've got it on.

[ Laughs ] Looking quite stylish.

Yeah.

Um, and so, basically...

All right, I felt a little pulse there, turning it on.

You felt a little pulse there -- okay, perfect.

Whoa. All right.

And so, now what you can do is, um, we built it for -- we built a visual app, because visual impairments have such a huge range.

You might have like, perfect pinhole vision in one eye, and still be considered legally blind.

And so, we built a visual app still, so that people could have access to see, but we also built it so that it works with iPhone's VoiceOver features for accessibility, which is what blind people use to navigate their phones currently.

Got it.

Um, and I can show you a demo of that in a second.

But you do a start navigation --

Yep, it's pulsing.

So you can't cheat, I want you to hold the phone upside down.

I want you to do a 360 spin really slow.

I want you to feel the whole experience, and come back around.

Oh, okay, now, it stopped, and now it's pulsing again.

And now, I want you to spin again, I want you to stop in the direction that you think is the right way to go based off what the device is telling you.

When you get there, freeze.

I'm want to check.

Let me see.

Oh, now it's -- now it's pulsing again.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Perfect.

You got it right.

Yeah.

So, now, I should go in this direction?

Exactly.

And so, like, what it would do is... I'll turn it upside down so it's not working, but basically, what it is, is like, it's guiding you to this point, and when you get to this point, it's going to then give you your next point, so like we can orient you towards the direction of your next point.

When you get there and you collect that dot, almost like playing Pac-Man.

Right.

We auto-dynamically change the map so that you are guided to the next point.

It's going to constantly be buzzing until I get to a -- it's sort of an opening.

Yeah, exactly.

And I walk through opening after opening after opening.

Exactly.

And so, like, once you get to -- Exactly, so like, you find the opening and you keeping walking through it, and then you get a notification buzz that lets you know that you've arrived at your end-destination, and it feels something like this.

Let's see.

Got it.

So...

Okay.

Cool.

All right, so, this -- this -- How did you get into designing this stuff in the first place?

Um, so, me and my three co-founders, we all kind of came together.

Um, we all have backgrounds in industrial design.

We met at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

Yang, one of my other co-founders, and I, we did the masters program there.

And Kevin, the other co-founder, he was a part of the bachelor's program.

And so, we all kind of came into the space through different doors.

My personal door was, I had spent my thesis year trying to figure out a way of combining fashion, movement, and technology.

And I ended up designing, or setting the premise for a suit that you can download kung fu into, and the suit would teach you kung fu.

This is straight out of 'The Matrix.'

Yeah, exactly.

My thesis was 'The Matrix.'

I saw that movie like a thousand times.

And I was like, wouldn't it be great if...? And then I started putting all the pieces together.

I was like, wait, you can do this now with existing technology.

Building the kung fu suit was actually much harder, and it taught you some of the basics, and so you were able to apply some of that learning into this?

Yeah, almost -- almost a reverse.

Like building a kung fu suit was so -- was much harder.

And we were kind of like, okay, like, let's simplify, right?

You know, like navigation has a very distinct set of commands.

It's go straight, turn left, turn right, wrong way.

You know, you've arrived, you begin.

So, we're like, okay, let's take a simplified experience, and, like, let's see if we can figure out a a way of communicating this experience through touch.

You had a -- a visually impaired marathoner that wore this through the New York City Marathon.

Yeah.

And this was not something that -- you know, this wasn't the goal of the product, but you kind of put it through its paces.

Exactly.

That was a -- that was a wonderful experience for us, you know.

Um, Simon Wheatcroft, he's the -- the marathon runner, he reached out to us, and he said, 'Hey, you know, if you can have this device ready by the New York City Marathon, I'd run this year with it.'

And so, we did not believe that we could have it ready by the New York City Marathon, but we were like, let's make the choice to do this anyway, knowing that the process of trying to get to the marathon is going to advance the product and the technology so far.

In our minds, it was like, this marathon was like Le Mans.

Like, if we can get through this, like, we -- we set the standard, and we create trust for the community around what it is that we've been working on and what we can do.

So, what'd you learn?

Oh. Well, one of the things that we learned is that, um, make sure the devices are very water-resistant.

Um, the -- the marathon kind of, for us, we weren't expecting the rain, and the rain was -- it got a lot harder, and at some point, maybe around mile 15 or 16, the device stopped working, um, due to the -- due to the fact that it was wet.

But we also got a lot of interesting data along the way that like, now, are concerns that we are looking to resolve.

You know, like, one of the things is, is that, uh, GPS accuracy in the city is -- is pretty troublesome.

So, we're looking kind of on the software side of like how do we resolve that?

And then, ultimately, for our group, you know, like, the real issue is -- is not necessarily navigating through the city streets.

We're giving them a better way to navigate by letting them use touch.

But they can navigate with the audio navigation.

The real challenge is that last 30 feet, that like, where is the door handle?

Like, that's the part that, like, GPS resolution doesn't allow solving for.

And we're also working on a few projects around indoor navigation.

All right.

Keith Kirkland, CEO and co-founder of WearWorks.

Thanks so much for joining us today.

Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

♪♪

Loneliness can have real consequences for older people, in terms of happiness and health.

In New York, one organization is taking the senior center online, creating a platform for socialization from the comfort of home.

Take a look.

For older adults, feeling lonely is more than a matter of happiness.

According to a 2012 study, loneliness in seniors affects their health and longevity of life.

So, when Microsoft and New York City's Department of Aging teamed up with Selfhelp, a nonprofit promoting independent living for seniors in New York, there was a need to fill, and executive director of Selfhelp Innovations, David Dring, knew exactly where to direct their efforts.

We recognized that a number of, um, the people that would go to our senior centers, you know, would slowly stop going, and for any number of reasons, no longer be able to access the socialization, the education, and the enrichment that would happen for them at the senior center.

So, we said, what if we were to use technology to essentially bring the senior center services to people in their home?

Hi, Bernie. How are you?

Good to see you.

The focus of Dring's career has been utilizing technological innovations to help older adults live independently, safely, and with dignity.

Still, what would eventually become Selfhelp's Virtual Senior Center brought with it some unique challenges -- most notably, creating an intuitive interface for a generation that didn't grow up with computers, and serving some users who were completely unfamiliar with how to use one.

You know, teaching someone how to use a mouse, for example, if you were to hold the -- the cord, the mouse sort of dangles underneath.

And so, if you follow adult learning theory, you would know that an older adult would map a mouse to a mouse.

So, the tail would be the back of the mouse.

And so, you would turn it around, and you would try to use the mouse with the tail, or essentially, the cord, pointing U.

And you would go in opposite directions on the screen.

Dring opted for a touch screen.

Virtual Senior Center computers also use a custom-made interface that brings users directly to its home screen.

Five years after launching, Dring still looks for ways to improve the system.

We really did an interactive process.

We, um, were constantly working with the participants in the program to give us their advice on what was working, what wasn't working.

We would do a lot of in-home, uh, sort of, uh, technical assistance calls for people with the purpose of watching them use the device to see what was the actual problem that they were experiencing, and then figuring out how we could use the technology to solve the problem, instead of training them on how to use it differently.

That mentality has cut training time for senior users from several weeks to just an hour-and-a-half.

Computers are sometimes free or provided on a sliding price scale, and setup and training are included.

What started as a pilot program of about 6 users has exploded into a fully active true Virtual Senior Center, with over 400 members and about 40 classes a week.

Users are equipped with a built-in camera and microphone to join in on lectures, discussions, concerts, and even fitness lessons.

[ Laughs ] Where am I in this thing here?

Bottom-right?

I don't know.

I'm Peter Marshall, that's all I know.

[ Laughs ]

It's been a game-changer for senior John Gaidis.

He had been visiting Selfhelp's brick-and-mortar senior center for computer classes, until his wife passed away, and he suffered two strokes, making leaving the house a real challenge.

Being able to use this computer and being -- having computer classes here, and not having to go to the center, it's opened up a whole new world of -- of reality to me.

Subsequently, through physical therapy, I was able to get back to walking.

Now I don't want to give this up anymore. [ Laughs ] So, I'm not going to the center, but I have this, and my friends are really on here, my virtual friends are on here.

Gaidis has his long-time friends and hobbies, but he says the Virtual Senior Center provides something new in his life, and that's exciting.

He travels remotely and discovers new places, learning pieces of different languages along the way, all from the comfort of his own home, sometimes accompanied by his furry sidekick, Theo.

So, it's like having somebody in the house with me, you know.

Yeah.

It is actually great for that.

The socialization of the Virtual Senior Center, and the benefits from the classes it provides, can be extraordinary.

Janice Baker-Offutt has MS.

She loves to be active and used to walk to the gym every day, but recently, she's become more homebound.

Today, she joins John Gaidis and dozens of others from her home in Chicago to participate in a music performance and discussion.

It is amazing what you could do, not only dancing in a chair, but exercising in a chair, and lifting you -- well, not only my legs, but my spirits to all type of heights.

Also joining today's class, Doris Cox.

She says the Virtual Senior Center came at the right time for her.

I was physically -- well, like, just about burned out.

But with -- with this mental stimulation from this program, where we, um, have a lot of different classes, and we participate in discussions and we listen to music, and we take exercises, now my doctor is saying that all my tests are coming back within the normal range.

Beyond the benefits from physical and mental stimulation, Dring says the Virtual Senior Center will allow for better overall care moving forward.

He found in testing with Selfhelp's case management programs that connecting with patients face-to-face virtually led to more productive check-ins than those done over the phone.

For example, we had one person who was a part of our case management program for three or four months over the summer.

They were doing their, you know, monthly phone call check-in, and everything sounded fine.

Then they put the person on the Virtual Senior Center, and they did a call-in, and the guy was sweaty.

And they're like, 'Well, why are you sweaty?'

He's like, 'Well, my air conditioner broke.'

'Well, why didn't you tell us?

You know, we have access to resources to be able to buy you a new air conditioner.'

And so, the things that happen physically, again, the body language that happens, is so important in understanding what a person's actual situation is.

But for regulars like Gaidis, nothing beats the opportunity to make new friends and learn new things every single day.

With the computer, I'm taking dog training lessons.

Oh, great!

[ Laughter ]

That's excellent.

So, and we're -- we're going to learn, aren't we?

I'm going to learn you -- Get -- [ Laughs ] ♪♪

Alzheimer's is a degenerative brain disease known to affect people's memories and cognitive abilities.

While there's no cure, researchers at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, are analyzing the disease, and the role of our brain's neurons.

Here's the story.

Haeun Kim studies and does Alzheimer's disease research in the UTSA laboratory of Dr. Hyoung-Gon Lee, a professor in peripheral neuropathy.

With our population aging so rapidly, um, we see more and more of neurodegenerative diseases, and Alzheimer's disease is one of the most common neurodegenerative diseases.

And it's so sad that we don't have any cure or any treatment for this disease.

And, you know, I see friends, you know, their family members who are afflicted with AD, and since it's so prevalent, um, I think it's worthwhile to study and -- and try to understand the mechanism behind this whole pathological level.

Dr. Lee explains that his research focuses on the molecular and cellular causes for neurons to die in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.

Basically, my research lab focus on the understanding of the basic mechanism, the why disease happen, and the why the neurons die in the Alzheimer's patient's brain.

So, we really focus on how -- what's the molecular and cellular mechanism, the neuron, the cause of the neuron and cell death in the dying mechanism.

And then we -- if we understand such a mechanism, and then we can find the cure, hopefully, in the future.

This research suggests that damaged neurons in an Alzheimer's brain are attempting to divide before they die.

Neurons in a normal brain cell do not try to divide.

Understanding the mechanisms behind these Alzheimer's neurons could lead to a breakthrough in treating or curing the disease.

So, there are evidences that suggest that neurons actually do go through, um, DNA replication in patients afflicted with Alzheimer's disease.

And, um, the PRKN that regulates the cell reentry is the PRKN of our interest.

And we're dedicated on understanding the mechanism behind Alzheimer's disease from the very bottom of molecular level to the cellular and all the way up to the pathological level.

And we're hoping to, um -- we're hoping that by targeting this cell cycle reentry, uh, we may have a breakthrough in, um, therapeutic measures, as well.

Dr. Lee's laboratory is currently developing an animal model to examine and understand how neurons die in Alzheimer's-affected brains.

This research aims to determine why these brain cells are trying to divide and, ultimately, help them divide and recover from the disease.

If successful, the key to unlocking the mystery of this devastating disease may be found.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube Channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪