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Ridge seniors travel the world in new virtual reality class

Brooklyn Daily
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Call it a new kind of reality check.

The seniors of the Bay Ridge Center at Bethlehem Lutheran Church on Fourth and Ovington avenues can now take mid-morning trips around the world once a week thanks to a new virtual reality class that debuted at the center last month. The program has especially amazed some reluctant seniors who were previously intimidated by technology, according to the class instructor.

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

Each week for an hour, six lucky seniors who sign up early enough put on the large goggles and headphones connected to an iPhone, which projects three-dimensional, interactive videos of real-world events and 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.

She 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 a traditional Hindu festival — Holi, or 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 senior who attended the class said she most liked that she felt like 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, and at the same time inspired his future travel plans.

“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.”

Marotta said that overall, the seniors’ shared the feeling of being transported to another time and place.

“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,’ and some of them have never left the U.S.”

The class was launched 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 funding to keep it going, according to the facility’s deputy executive director, Todd Fliedner.

Marotta said 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.

“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 jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
Updated 1:34 am, July 10, 2018
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