Tackling Dementia with The Wayback Project

Tech that hopes to offer some respite this Dementia Action Week

Alix Vonk

24 May 2018

The effect of dementia

In 2018 225,000 people in the UK are anticipated to be affected by dementia – and by 2030 it’s predicted that this number could reach up to 74.7 million people worldwide. Remarkably 1 in 3 people born after 2015 will develop dementia at some point in their lifetime.*

Undoubtedly all of us will have read about dementia and its effects, and seen reports and expert interviews on TV. But perhaps as it seems to only affect people later in life this devastating condition can often get ignored. Between 1998 and 2012 there were 101 unsuccessful attempts to develop effective drugs and it would seem that many pharmaceutical companies are now withdrawing from the search for a dementia cure.

There are many kinds of dementia that can affect a person’s ability to remember, understand and communicate to varying degrees. Often sufferers can vividly remember the distant past, but struggle to remember more recent memories. The effects on the human mind can be terrifying for both the sufferer and their close friends and relatives. When we’re faced with something so heartbreaking and devastating, consuming the people we love and turning them into a shell of the person we once knew, we would really try anything to support them. That’s what’s prompted a team of techies to start a new project that Harvard was recently lucky enough to be involved in.

What effect can tech have?

Known as The Way Back, this project is essentially a Google Cardboard app that supports a virtual reality film about the Queen’s Coronation in 1953. Niche? I know. But its aim was to recreate a popular, positive moment from a relevant period in time for its target audience. By conjuring up the sights and sounds of the street parties held around the country for the Coronation – something that would have resonated with those now in their late 60s or early 70s and most susceptible to early signs of dementia – it aimed to stimulate their memories once again.

The personal touch

When we met with two of the co-creators of The Way Back, Dan Cole and Trent Simpson, they and their team all had friends or family members who in some way had been touched by a form of dementia. Their cause and story was compelling and so was the tech and content.

An immersive VR experience had been accurately recreated with first-person accounts to add colour to compelling and historically accurate storytelling. Over 200 extras and actors and 60 crew volunteered to take part in the shoot. Along with production partners the total number involved in making the first film was nearly 500 people (all of them working around their existing day jobs). The result was incredible.

Joining the volunteers

The team at Harvard only needed to watch a 30 second clip of the film to know they wanted to be involved.

With emotions running high the team reached out to contacts across the spectrum, from broadcast to tech media and nationals. We wanted to raise awareness and get people talking about something tangible that could genuinely make a positive impact on those affected by dementia.

We originally focused on pitching in the health-tech angle of the project, and secured interest with tech show Sky Swipe, which resulted in an afternoon’s filming at Huntington House & Langham Court care home.

National outreach with a physical mail out of the VR headsets, accompanied by press materials, secured interest with a number of key media including Sky, BBC News, Campaign, Reuters, The Guardian and The Gadget Show.


Where to now?

The next step in The Way Back’s ambitions is to use VR to recreate the days of the 1966 World Cup Final, to trigger further memories and conversations between those with dementia and their carers.

The funding needed to get this original content created to a standard that would benefit users is high and at the moment the team only have a quarter of what is needed.

If you have any way you can help fund or be involved in the project, please contact the team at info@thewaybackVR.com

Tech for good

The phrase ‘tech for good’ is increasingly popular among brands both big and small. It’s driven by consumers wanting to emotionally connect with things they purchase and services they use. But it’s important to understand the real significance of tech for good and the value such projects bring to us all. As with anything, the risk is that it will just become another buzz phrase. But The Way Back is undeniably a socially valuable initiative. It’s something all of us at Harvard were thrilled to support.

For more on Dementia Action Week visit www.alzheimers.org.uk