Google Street View was launched in 2007 with a fleet of cars which had cameras mounted on their tops, providing a panoramic view of thousands of streets all over the world using groundbreaking immersive media technology. As Street View turns 10 years old, we find that not only the planned applications of the technology have been a resounding success, but it has also opened up new fields of usage beyond anything its creators could have imagined.
One such innovation allows Google Street View to be used to battle Alzheimer’s Diseases. The terrible affliction causes dementia among the elderly. Patients are rendered helpless, unable to remember their own names, their past memories or even how to perform basic everyday chores.
Biomechanical Engineer Anne-Christine Hertz was intimately familiar with the diseases and its devastating effects on patients. Hertz was trying to help patients improve their condition by preserving their old memories. Ordinary memory exercises, however, were proving ineffective against the inexorable spread of the disease to every corner of the mind, clouding out the most precious memories and experiences that gave the patients their very identity!
That was when Hertz hit upon the idea of using Google Street View to better aid her charges. The result was a device known as the BikeAround. Created as a prototype last year, it uses what appears to be stationary bike kept inside the house. The bike is placed in front of a large screen which displays Google Street View. The patient gets on the bike and inputs the name or address of a place that was an important part of his or her past. Once the screen displays the location, the subject can pedal around the area on a virtual tour that feels incredibly intimate because it takes place in a location that the patient knows and loves.
Indoor Trips Down Memory Lane
The idea behind the device is simple. Our memories are strongly connected to locations from our past. The moment we come across a place we had once visited, our minds immediately travel back to that time, releasing a flood of memories into our brains.
The BikeAround does the same for Alzheimer’s patients. For those who suffer from dementia, going outside the house can be extremely dangerous, and traveling alone is next to impossible. The BikeAround eliminates the possibility of danger by allowing the patient to stay indoors while still being able to take a virtual ride down memory lane.
The working of the machine is as simple as it is innovative. Simply showing a location on screen is not enough. The patient needs to feel as much control over the process as possible. Thus, the controls directing the angle and direction of the street view camera are connected to the bike. This creates the illusion that it is the patient who is moving down the familiar path rather than simply following a machine.
Results of using the bike have been heartening. Lars Jonsson, a 75 year old dementia patient, was one of the first subjects of the BikeAround. Initially hesitant upon observing the strange new contraption, Jonsson was quickly held spellbound by the images before him as he traveled through the church where he had been married 35 years ago. The exercise brought back many wonderful memories that he had feared were lost forever, and made him experience joy and happiness after a long time.
Patients who take a tour on the BikeAround often report remembering many happy memories from their past, once they have traveled virtually through the streets they used to frequent when they were younger and disease-free. Scientists have stated that recalling happy memories increases the flow of dopamine into patient’s brains, leading to a more cheerful and healthy frame of mind.
This new method of jogging patient’s memories is a significant step-up from the old practice of using photographs. Our memories are intensely tied to locations. It is not just the sight of old, familiar locations, but the physical act of traveling through those locations that create a powerful positive impact on the minds of patients.
With the success of the first batch of BikeArounds, great interest has been generated around the globe in the device. Anne-Christine Hertz plans to introduce the BikeAround to medical facilities all over the world. The combination of memory boosting and light cardio exercise that the device offers makes it a valuable tool in the ongoing efforts to manage the effects of dementia and improve the lives of patients.