Billy Agnew created Viarama, the world’s first virtual reality (VR) social enterprise, to see if the technology could be used to help those living with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The company has since expanded into other fields and will be bringing VR to QMU's brand new Paramedic Science course, allowing students to experience real-life situations in an immersive and risk-free environment.

Tell us a bit about yourself, how you became involved in virtual reality, and why you set up Viarama.

I first tried VR many years ago, and it struck a chord with me that resonated again around 2015 when there was a resurgence in the technology. My studies were in psychology, and I was keen to see if VR could be used to help those living with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Upon getting an early build of a headset, I took a system along to a local nursing home to allow some senior citizens to try it out; the response was overwhelming, and for most, it was a surprisingly emotional experience.

At that point, the decision was made to create Viarama - a social enterprise that takes the best VR available into schools, nursing homes, hospices, respite centres, and hospitals - to help people in a variety of ways that wouldn’t have been possible without the technology. We’re now looking forward to expanding into higher education, through the Paramedic Science degree pathway at QMU.

Viarama is the world’s first virtual reality social enterprise – what projects have you been involved in so far?

All of our projects have a strong social focus at their core. In the last few years, we've done some amazing things - like creating a virtual reality experience to allow schoolchildren to visit a live construction site, creating an experience to train people in first aid, and much more. Our core work, however, is using VR to help schoolchildren, senior citizens, and 18 to 24-year-olds, and we're very proud of being the first in the world to enable a great many innovative VR experiences.

How can VR improve people’s quality of life?

Our work is hugely rewarding across all of the sectors we work in. In hospices, for example, we allow people to travel; to revisit places of real significance in their lives or to go to somewhere they never thought they would have the chance to see. We've witnessed some deeply moving and poignant sessions where people have gone to their favourite beach again or revisited their honeymoon spot or even their childhood home. One lady we worked with recently was 101 years old and was receiving palliative care; she was brought up in Darjeeling and hadn’t seen her childhood home for 90 years. When we took her back there in VR and let her see her old school, her house, and the rolling hills she would explore as a young girl - well, you can imagine what that meant to her. We’re very fortunate to be able to share that with people.

"We can place learners in situations that would be dangerous in real life, and we can do that safely. In other words, we can gently expose students to situations that would be extremely challenging in a real-world setting."
Billy Agnew, Founder of Viarama

VR technology, provided by Viarama, will play an important part in training the future generation of paramedics at Queen Margaret University (QMU). Could you tell us a bit more about how students could utilise this technology on the course?

One of the great things about VR is that it can allow people to have experiences that otherwise would be impossible. For paramedics, we can place learners in situations that would be dangerous in real life, and we can do that safely. In other words, we can gently expose students to situations that would be extremely challenging in a real-world setting.

Using VR, we can allow a student to experience complex episodes of care, but the crucial difference is that we will be able to control what is shown, and how graphic a depiction that is. This allows learners to experience situations that would otherwise be very difficult to recreate in real life, and this is vital to building up confidence in themselves and their growing abilities.

Viarama is very excited to be working on this project with QMU. This forward-thinking and highly innovative approach taken by the University will be of great benefit to the many trainee paramedics who will get to experience this fantastic new method of training and education. 

[Published December 2019]