One of the largest advocates for senior citizens is diving into virtual reality today with the release of Alcove for Oculus Quest, a free app that helps friends and families entertain themselves — and each other — while sheltering in place.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) is unveiling the app for the Oculus Quest VR headset as a family-oriented experience. Built by AARP Innovation Labs and Rendever, the app is a platform for a variety of VR apps — covering everything from photo memories to meditation and world travel.

“The whole concept of Alcove is about family,” product lead Cezara Windrem said in an interview with VentureBeat. “Virtual reality itself should be the medium that is the most inclusive of all. And yet people might not be into gaming or the things being created in VR today. We saw the opportunity to bring something to those users who want to have a more quiet, peaceful, and beautiful experience in virtual reality and yet take advantage of all the magic that this medium can offer.”

The idea is to help people stay connected and enjoy new experiences, regardless of their travel budget, time, age, or mobility constraints. Alcove offers health and wellness activities, photo memory sharing, customized entertainment and games, and exploration of new places around the world.

Above: Alcove is about beautiful environments.

Image Credit: AARP

“We really started from scratch with simplicity in mind from day one, and with something comforting in a virtual home environment,” Windrem said. “It’s not a huge space where you’re floating on top of mountains or you’re floating in the middle of nowhere. It’s familiar. Then you get to move around and start to discover the magic of VR.”

Fighting isolation

Alcove was developed to help combat social isolation and loneliness by bridging the physical distance between family members and friends through virtual experiences. Even before the onset of pandemic-related lockdowns, social isolation was a growing health concern, particularly for older adults. Studies show that prolonged isolation can be the health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day and can exacerbate existing health problems, such as lung disease, heart disease, and diabetes.

Alcove users can bring loved ones into a shared virtual space — regardless of their location — to connect, play, and explore. Users can offer guests fully guided, controller-free experiences in VR and lead them around. They can also relive family memories by uploading photos and videos and can choose where these show up on the walls of the Alcove home environment. It certainly seems like a place I’d like to take my elderly mother, who has dementia and is in an assisted-living facility under quarantine. But doing so is complicated, as I can’t go visit her and show her how to use a Quest.

Alcove also lets people play classic games in VR, like checkers, chess, and cognitive games, with the option to play against the computer or a friend or family member.

Above: Homebound people can go anywhere they want in Alcove.

Image Credit: AARP

Users can practice meditation with guided or unguided three-dimensional breathing meditations in remote nature locations, like rainforests and beaches. They can also travel the world — dive in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, ride in a hot air balloon over a Kenyan safari, take a road trip across the U.S. in a convertible, or enjoy a virtual walkthrough of hundreds of major cities and destinations on any continent.

AARP Innovation Labs vice president Richard Robinson said in an interview with VentureBeat that Alcove is designed to be cross-generational.

“You might think there’s a gap in understanding, but once [users] put the headset on, they really get into it,” Robinson said. “It’s not targeted at people who are 75 years or older only. You can communicate with other people. You can take people on a tour. We find that people 50 or older are engaging with their children or even their grandchildren via the avatars.”

Above: The Alcove health patio

Image Credit: AARP

Content creators include AARP, Blend Media, the Dolphin Swim Club, EcoVR, Georgieff Studio, Head Start Design JumbliVR, Paracosma, Parkline Interactive, Patched Reality, Sygic Travel, VArtisans, Virtuleap, and VR Health. AARP started working on the project in early 2019.

The organization hopes to marry technology and its reach to 38 million people over 50 years old to provide comfort for folks through apps like Alcove, Robinson said.

“We know that it is a social tool to allow people to interact when they’re not able to be together, whether it’s because of COVID-19 or they simply are isolated by geography,” Robinson said. “And we really have kind of pushed the product as a way for people of any age to be able to communicate and just be social inside of VR.”