AUSTIN (KXAN) — Retirement community seniors need to get out more.

That’s what a team of five in-coming seniors at Vista Ridge High School believes, and they want to provide them with the opportunity through the lenses of virtual reality.

“This is a very novel idea,” team director Amod Daherkar said. “We’re not reinventing the wheel, a lot of this technology already exists, but it’s just not being implemented in the right way.”

The mental health of those seniors was top of mind when the group set out to improve access to digital technology in underprivileged parts of communities.

From crawling to walking

Started in August 2019, their group created a non-profit organization called WalkThru via the Leander ISD high school’s two-year incubator program.

“It’s like Shark Tank, but at a high school level,” Daherkar said. “The idea originally started with one of our group members, Cameron. His grandmother was talking to him about the History Channel, because it made it feel like she could go places that she previously couldn’t.”

(Courtesy: Amod Daherkar)

With the help of some Vista Ridge computer science students, the group developed a web-app where they can now stream virtual reality tours and 360 content. Since then, they’ve partnered with multiple retirement home activity directors, providing free VR demos to seniors living at various locations.

“We quickly learned that they really value their music and bingo time a lot, and we don’t want to interfere with that, ” Daherkar said. “Initially, it was kind of difficult because if you just put up posters in a retirement home saying, ‘Check out a virtual reality demo!’ Nobody is gonna show up, cause they don’t know what that is.”

Instead, they offered them a virtual trip of a lifetime.

“A free tour of Paris, check out the Louvre, check out the Red Square, and we would start getting 10, 20, 30, 40 residents showing up each time we would go in,” Daherkar said. “They were not shy with giving us feedback about what they liked and didn’t like.”

Daherkar hopes the retirement seniors find relief from any depression, anxiety, or boredom they might feel from their lack of mobility.

“Many of us in our group, have grandparents in retirement homes. My own grandmother, she’s at an age where she can’t travel very well, she’s got physical limitations. And we thought, you know, this isn’t just an issue that our families face, this is an issue which millions of families across the United States face every single year,” Daherkar said. “We’ve got over 77 million people either at or approaching retirement in the United States — 1.3 million of which are in the 28 thousand retirement communities across this country, and the vast majority of them suffer from anxiety, depression, and isolation.”

The move to online

When COVID-19 hit, and the team couldn’t visit the retirement communities anymore.

“Initially, we were kind of bummed out, because, you know, especially with retirement homes. I mean, our demographic is probably one of the most susceptible to the virus,” Daherkar said. “We were not able to go in and interact with them.”

So they pivoted and adapted to online. Their main issue was accessibility.

“We came up with our own login system where it’ll all be location-based. So if you’re a resident in a retirement community, pull out your phone, you go to our app, it’ll automatically check your IP [address], your location, and all you have to do is click on a picture of your retirement community and it’ll log you into our system and identify who your activity director is,” Daherkar said. “Residents can use it without us having to physically be there to show them.”

The response has made it all worth it.

“In the past few months we haven’t been able to go into these retirement homes, but when we were able to go in, and especially towards the beginning of this year, seeing their reactions for the first time, especially many of them who were visiting childhood locations or especially places they hadn’t been before, was just absolutely amazing. I mean, we had some residents who were moved to tears. I mean these are places they’ve gone to either with their parents or they served there during wartime or they’ve physically gone there at some point in their lives and they thought they’d never see it again. Being able to recreate that experience for them at a time when, you know, for whatever mental, physical, or financial reasons they’re unable to go out anymore, it’s just been, really rewarding.”

Daherkar said.

WalkThru is currently accessible to more than 500 residents. The group collaborated with dozens of YouTube content creators for the VR videos. They have 110 different tours in their web app. If you’re interested to see what seniors can experience, you can visit their website to request a demo. It works with any kind of phone or VR headset.