Swim with dolphins in St John’s Wood

People attending the North West London branch's open meeting in St John's Wood last month might have been expecting a catch-up on branch developments and maybe a cup of tea but probably not the chance to feel what it might be like to swim with dolphins or ski in the Alps.

Leon Ancliffe, managing director of film company Flix Films, was more than happy to accept branch co-chair Sarah Ezekiel's, offer to demonstrate his company’s virtual reality (VR) experiences and equipment at the meeting. People got the chance to don VR goggles and take to the skies in a fast jet or drive a formula one car or just lie back and watch the Northern Lights.

VR Sarah Ezekiel

"We've been working with the MND Association for about six years now," said Leon, a theatre performer who 10 years ago turned his attention to making films predominantly in the healthcare sector.  "One of the films we made for them was called Understanding MND. We were following different families through that journey. How they were using technology and other means to add quality to life," he said.

He met Sarah, who has MND and communicates via Eyegaze technology, through his work with the Association and describes her now as one of his best friends.

"Sarah messaged me to say she was having the event and people were interested in the work we were doing. I thought I was just going to turn up and have a little corner where people could come and have experiences, but they asked me to stand up and talk about VR. People were really engaged with it," said Leon.

Leon, who is more interested in the health sector and enriching the lives of people who are ill than exploiting the gaming and entertainment sectors, says he has been surprised by the experiences people want to have.

"You'll have someone who is coming to the end of their life in weeks or days and they want to sky dive or do extreme skiing, or fly a jet aircraft or drive a formula one car. It's almost like to the very last minute people want to live something."

And VR has something unique to offer to people affected by MND. Leon relates a story where a young mother in a hospice was not well enough to go to a school award ceremony for her daughter. He was able to set up a live VR stream from the ceremony where the mum could attend the event from her hospice bed as if she was sitting in a seat in the school hall. The technology could equally be used to help someone share in a significant event in a loved one’s life.

"That's the power of virtual reality, that's when you take VR and connect people. You can't put a cost on it," he says.

Leon says that the Eyegaze technology could be particularly useful in making VR more accessible to people with MND, allowing them to keep control over technology as they lose motor skills.

"If you took a technology like Eyegaze where you're able to use your eyes to manipulate the position of your view - so if you look right the VR will follow you - that will open up the door in future for so many people who might  not be able to fully experience VR. Inclusivity of VR will be what's really important, as will shared experiences," Leon observed.

Sharing experiences with friends and family can be crucial to people affected by MND as the disease progresses. "People want to share experiences so they can reflect on them together," says Leon.

Words by Keiron Henderson - Volunteer writer

Website: www.flixfilms.com

Twitter: @FlixFilmsUK

For further information and support contact our MND Connect helpline

mndconnect 0808 802 6262