Growing old, at least as we know it today, is about inexorable loss — loss of hair, loss of teeth, loss of family and friends, loss of home and money, perhaps.
As the population ages, and more people are expected to reach 100 years old and beyond, it can seem a mixed blessing. Is old age something we want to prolong? After all, many old folks do today find themselves cut off, shut in and lonely. Relationships — love and meaning — can be made difficult by physical barriers.
Enter VR — virtual reality.
Many experts believe that VR will be more than a gaming fad. There is a growing belief it can create an ability to have full-fledged, wide-angle experiences, and even relive cherished memories.
Imagine if, at 100, you and your wife could relive your first date?
Imagine old age if we can use technology, VR in particular, and other wearables to not only rekindle memories, but also to create new connections and experiences, no matter what our physical status in real life?
Dating guide author Jennifer Kelton says it’s all about dopamine and oxytocin, and the rush we get from social interactions which spur the brain chemical.
It’s a hormone that is integral to meaning and excitement — and love — no matter what our age.
“These hits of dopamine and oxytocin sustain us on a physical and emotional level,” says Kelton, the founder of BadOnlineDates.com and the author of Don’t Use My Sweater Like a Towel: The Stain Free Guide for Dating and Mating in the 21st Century.
“Interestingly,’’ she adds, “we can get these doses of pleasure hormones from social networks and gaming, as well as from in-person interactions.”
Many technologies, including wearables and robotics, will create Brave New Worlds for dating and relationships, as we get older. VR and gaming may offer the most dramatic shifts, however, especially as the suspension of disbelief improves and biological responses develop.
The first wave of VR is already on the horizon, too. The New York Times just released its VR app, to some acclaim. Google (GOOG) has created a whole selection of cardboard VR viewers you can use with your cell phone. There are companies that are filming 360 degree video from multitudes of heights and perspectives to allow users to participate in movies, rather than just watch them. Oculus Rift, owned by Facebook (FB), is ready to launch next-generation headsets next year.
Game developer Nicole Lazzaro, founder of XEODesign, agrees that that VR and gaming could open up new experiences for the elderly in the future, and that it will go beyond simple entertainment. She is working on a game called Follow the White Rabbit that targets emotions to deepen the VR experience.
Lazzaro notes that the technology will advance in leaps and bounds in the next 50 years to beyond what we can even imagine today. “Virtual reality is about experiences and generating emotions,” she says. “When we think about aging and dating we are really talking about social relationships, and virtual reality will deliver that in spades.”
That means a sojourn in the immersive, wide-angle VR realm could allow someone to experience new things such as paragliding as well as a memories. It also could tie the two — present fantasy and past reality — together and network them with others using VR.
Physical limits will fall away. Even if you are physically confined, you could be cycling in Nepal or hang-gliding with your new friend.
Skeptical? Just imagine that those clunky VR headsets have been replaced with contact lenses, and other people wearing the VR lenses can be in the same scene as you. You can project yourself, as you want to be perceived, and be seen for who you feel you really are, rather than just your age. If you want to be young again, in VR you can. (Heck, if you want to be an octopus, in 50 years from now you could probably do that, too.)
What does this mean in terms of relationships and dating fifty years from now? This could mean that we add a new layer to reality, one where our physical limits fall away. It could mean a redefinition of aging as a newly productive and social time for old folks who perhaps can no longer get out as easily or as often. It could help bridge the gap that both elderly men and women face in being closed off from interaction with people their own age, and with younger ages.
Of course, the advances will also probably spur a spate of centenarian coupling, too. That old couple that you smile at as they take a stroll in the park? In 50 years they might be walking through a re-creation of the halls of their old high school.
About 60 percent of seniors are already online today, on social networks, gaming platforms or dating sites such as OurTime.com. Those numbers will grow as more digitally savvy generations hobble into the future.
And if you think older folks don’t need to continue to date and be in relationships, seniors are having lots of sex already. Indeed, the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases have risen among the elderly, helped by more relaxed attitudes to sex outside of marriage. Higher divorce rates and more breakups and higher have led to more single people, too.
But whether you meet online or in person, Kelton says what remains important is having interactions with others — something that’s especially important as more Americans age in place rather than moving to assisted living facilities.
“People who live in strong communities, whether they are real or virtual, will have longer lifespans,” she says.
Andy Schroepfer, a former tech analyst for Goldman Sachs, is chief strategy officer at HOSTING, a Denver-based managed cloud services firm. Follow him on Twitter at @SHrepFUR, which is the phonetic spelling of his name.