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Google Street View takes dementia on the road

October 4, 2017
by Pamela Tabar, Editor-in-Chief
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Millions of people have used Google’s Street View to navigate streets when visiting an unfamiliar city. But a new pilot project is using the Google app and a special virtual reality “bicycle chair” to take people with dementia back to their most familiar places.

The BikeAround bicycle view system, created in 2014 by Anne-Christine Hertz, a biomechanical engineer and coordinator of the Health Technology Centre at Sweden’s Halmstad University, combines the pedals and handlebars of a bicycle with surround-screen visual capabilities. Now the cycle has been plugged into the maps and 3-D modeling of the Google Street View. The rider inputs the address of a place—say, a childhood neighborhood—and can “steer” the bike through that area, seeing the buildings, streets, lakes and other landmarks recorded in Google Street View. The large surround-screen viewer makes it feel like a real bike ride and could have a greater ability to trigger memories than glancing through a photo album.

“Our strongest memories are tied inexorably to location,” Hertz says in a recent blog. “BikeAround taps into this idea by combining mental and physical stimulation—surrounding the patient with places they recognize through the Street View images, and then having them pedal and steer through them. Scientists think this kind of pairing produces dopamine in the brain and has the potential to affect memory management in a profound way.”

The system is so fascinating to use that some residents find themselves exercising for an hour or more, without even realizing it as they travel through the virtual places of their memories, Hertz says. “Neighborhoods they grew up in. Parks they played in as a child. Family visits to the seaside. They remember again. That’s a feeling of freedom.”

Watch the BikeAround in action in this YouTube video.

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