Warwick senior helps Pleasant View residents relive memories with virtual reality

By on June 20, 2018

Pleasant View Retirement Community resident Matilda “Lee” Marras (center) views some computer images Warwick senior Brad Dum (right) and his Pleasant View mentor Keith Hoover (left) used to create a virtual reality tour of special memories from her life. (Photo by Rochelle Shenk)

Ever wish you could return to a place that holds special memories or take an armchair tour of a place on your bucket list? That’s what residents at Pleasant View Retirement Community are doing, thanks to virtual reality technology.

“It all started with my personal interest in virtual technology. Google’s Expeditions app runs on tablets and phone; it offers 360 degree views of places such as museums and the space station. We’ve had the system here for about two years,” explained Keith Hoover, PVRC’s director of information technology. “We use the pre-loaded tours for group activities, but we realized it’s capable of much more. We wanted to offer the possibility of creating a custom tour for individual residents, but that requires a lot of additional time that our staff does not have.”

He considered searching for tech savvy volunteers, but then reached out to colleagues including some who work for area school districts. Through that connection, he learned about Warwick High School’s internship program, which seemed like a good fit. The project also intrigued Warwick senior Bradley “Brad” Dum.

“I’m really interested in VR technology. I have an HTC Vive gaming system at home and it really makes you feel like you’re inside the game rather than just watching it. It also helps to have people skills, since a part of creating the individualized tours involves interacting with the resident,” Dum said, adding that Pleasant View’s internship was one of three technology-related internships that he considered.

Warwick’s internship program is only offered to seniors and only during the second semester. Jackie Yanchocik, a spokesperson for the district, said the pilot internship program was launched four years ago with an internship at Sechan Electronics. Participation has grown annually, with 16 students participating this year.

“The district hopes that the students gain some real world experience, and that students can take what they’ve already learned in school and apply it directly to their internship work,” she said.

Dum began his PVRC internship Jan. 28 and was there half-days (noon to 3 p.m.) Monday through Friday.

“I was a bit nervous at first; who goes to a teenager to build a VR software app?” he said with a smile, “My first task was to learn the editing software and hardware such as the camera and the VR headsets.”

Once he mastered that, he began working with residents to create individualized tours. He explained that he developed a four step process:

  1. Talking with the resident to ensure that he or she and/or a family member is comfortable using the technology.
  2. Interview the resident to determine his or her favorite memories and other items to include. Dum said this step also involved discussing concerns a resident may have such as a fear of heights.

“If someone’s afraid of heights, you don’t want to create a 360 virtual experience that has them high atop a mountain or tall building,” he explained.

  1. Research — Gathering the 360 degree photos of the places the resident described. Dum said the places could be a childhood home, school the person attended, place the person worked or a favorite vacation spot or a place they would visit often with their family.

“This is the most important step, and the one that takes the longest. To get the 360 degree views, I often used Google Maps,” he explained.

  1. “The Moment of Truth” — Showing the presentation to the resident via a VR headset with perhaps a second headset for a relative or friend.

“This is their story, so it’s important to let them enjoy the experience,” Dum said.

Additionally, Dum and Ryan Axe, Warwick’s director of secondary education, were presenters at a state Department of Aging conference where they discussed the project and its use of technology as a way to recreate memories for seniors.

Brad Dum accepts a scholarship for $1,000 from the executive committee of the PVRC Auxiliary. Shown are (left to right) Julie Miller, Shirley Wenger, Dum, Peggy Erb, and Shirley Landis. (Submitted photo)

Revisiting Chicago

Matilda “Lee” Marras was one of the residents who benefitted from Dum’s expertise. The 94-year-old has quite a story to tell; she was a singer and comedian who entertained in nightclubs from Wildwood, N.J. to New York state (but not the Catskills) and Chicago. At one point she was the opening act for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, (and no, she did not get to meet Martin’s pal Frank Sinatra). She had a long-term engagement at the Paddock Club in East Chicago. Her favorite spot in Chicago, North Avenue Beach, is part of the tour Dum created for her.

“I’ve always liked the water, so I spent a lot of time at North Avenue Beach when I was in Chicago. Back east, my favorite nightclub was in Wildwood,” she recalled. “It was a nice club, and Wildwood has the beach.”

“It Had to Be You” was her signature song. She sang it to her late husband, John, who she met during her time as an entertainer. As he was doing research for Marras’ VR tour, he came across a recording of a performance she did Nov. 10, 1950 that aired on Chicago’s WFJL-FM and created a CD of the recording for her.

“It took some time to do, but it was well worth it, when I saw Lee’s face light up as she first listened to it,” Dum said.

Although she hasn’t performed professionally in a number of years, she still enjoys singing with her friend Dee Konrad, another PVRC resident, and Marras enjoys hearing that recording, and even singing along with it.

“It’s wonderful,” she said as she listened to the CD.

Marras was not only an entertainer, but she was the first copy girl for the Chicago Sun Times, a fact that’s documented in a news clipping she keeps in a scrapbook. Dum and the two residents became close friends as a result of the VR project.

“They call me their honorary grandson,” he said.

Although his internship ended the beginning of June, Dum intends to remain active with the project

“I want to help train the person who will take over this project. Luckily I’ll be attending college locally (two years at HACC followed by two years at Millersville University majoring in computer science), so I’ll be able to make that work. This was really a great fit for me. I not only got to do something I enjoy (working with technology), but I also made some new friends. It was wonderful to hear their stories and to be able to recreate some special memories for them. I feel I’ve made a difference in people’s lives.”

In recognition of Dum’s contribution to the community, Pleasant View Retirement Community’s Auxiliary presented him with a $1,000 scholarship. It’s the first time the organization has presented a scholarship.

“Every year, the Pleasant View Auxiliary provides funding for special projects that enhance the lives of Pleasant View residents,” said Shirley Wenger, president of the auxiliary. “This scholarship recognizes the positive impact Brad has made on our residents during his internship, and encourages him to continue to his passion for making technology approachable for seniors.”

Rochelle Shenk is a correspondent for the Lititz Record Express. She welcomes your comments and questions at RAASHENK@aol.com.

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