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See the world, ‘virtually’ and hassle-free


October 22, 2014

A crew from NHK Media films an upcoming episode for a series to be aired on Japan’s public television about advances in technology that will make life easier and more fun. The film session took place last week at Harbour Pointe Retirement in Mukilteo where residents were taking virtual reality trips.

One senior citizen went scuba diving last week. Another piloted an airplane. Yet another walked along cobblestoned streets to a fancy villa in Italy.

All went on their adventures from the comfort of their home, Harbour Pointe Retirement, via a digital world known as “virtual reality.”

Residents have been enjoying these high-tech explorations thanks to Martin Buehler and his family, regular visitors to the retirement community.

They bring special goggles, a computer system and software that enable users to “virtually” travel in 3D environments. The experiences are so close to real that users point to things only they can see, or try to grab objects that exist only in the virtual world they’re visiting.

Although Buehler has made several visits to the complex, last week brought a Hollywood sheen to the occasion. A crew from NHK Media in New York filmed several residents as they visited virtual worlds on Buehler’s system.

The crew was shooting an episode for a series to be aired by NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting organization, similar to Britain’s BBC or America’s PBS.

According to Paul DiMartino of Milky Way Media, the five-part documentary called “Next World” explores how technology will affect society 20-30 years from now.

“Episode 4 is about using virtual reality,” DiMartino said. “It shows that virtual reality is more than just games for kids.

“This shows how it can improve people’s lives, especially people who can’t be as active as they once were.”

Among them at Harbour Pointe was Gail Painter, a long-time Snohomish County travel agent who used to enjoy scuba diving. She was at it again last week, this time seated in a chair, warm and dry.

The opportunity to travel virtually goes back about five years when Buehler’s father-in-law, Wayne Schoenmakers, found himself laid off during the recession. After a few weeks hanging around the house, he said his wife told him to find something to do.

He walked down the street from his home to Harbour Pointe Retirement to visit with some of the men living there.

That turned into a regular Saturday men’s group gathering, informally named “Wayne’s World.”

“Guys tend to stay to themselves,” Schoenmakers said. “They’re not as social as women. So it’s fun to get together.”

Over time, Schoenmakers started learning about his new friends’ histories. Several of them were former pilots, including combat pilots from WWII.

Buehler and his son, Amand Souza, were having fun with their virtual reality programs, including a flight simulator. In fact, Amand, 13, wants to go to aviation school.

His mother, Rani Souza, said of her husband and son: “They are very passionate about flying. And my husband loves technology.

“They love sharing that technology with people.”

Schoenmakers suggested they bring that passion to the retirement community so that old pilots would have an opportunity to “fly” once again.

Buehler said he brought along a box of airplane memorabilia and artifacts for that first visit, but it was the flight simulator that won the day.

Over time, virtual reality programs are steadily improving. Buehler brings the latest software, and residents who never piloted a plane have started showing up as well.

Buehler said the steady advancements have made virtual reality a worldwide adventure for everyone from techies to retirees.

Coming soon are controlled virtual reality systems in which users wear gloves so that they can actually pick up objects.

“You can see where it’s going,” Buehler said. “People are going to be doing things that they thought they couldn’t do anymore.”

Resident Gail Painter listens to direction from Amand Souza, right, while his grandfather, Wayne Schoenmakers, looks on. Painter and other residents were experiencing virtual reality adventures, including piloting planes and scuba diving.

Buehler envisions programs that will help people overcome fears, too, from flying to speaking to crowds.

“For example, you could practice giving a speech in front of a virtual audience,” he said. “You could even have a heckler.”

Until then, folks can enjoy new adventures without the pain of travel – or the hecklers.

The “Next World” series is scheduled to air in January in Japan. It will then be dubbed in English and marketed in the U.S.


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