100-Year-Old Man Experiences Virtual Reality

Centenarian Lyle Becker’s first experience with VR gives a glimpse into how the technology can help seniors virtually explore the world.

Technology can change a lot in 100 years. Just ask Lyle Becker.

In 1917, Woodrow Wilson was America’s president, World War I was in full swing, the toggle light switch was just invented — and Becker, a 100-year-old former air traffic controller and Army Air Corps pilot, was born. Becker grew up in a literal little house on the prairie, a place where his progressive father figured out how to install electricity, introducing a 12-year-old Becker to the light bulb.

He’s witnessed a man land on the moon, the birth of television, and the launch of the personal computer and internet. But he’d never experienced anything quite like the digital world when he donned goggles at Intel’s virtual reality (VR) lab in Oregon.

As perhaps one of the first centenarians to experience VR, Becker was impressed.

“It was certainly interesting to see a new element of technology,” he said.

How did Becker’s adventure in VR happen? His daughter, former Intel employee Patty Vice, shared with her friend, Intel VR marketing analyst My-Hanh Eastep, that Becker was interested in learning more about VR. One thing led to another, and Eastep set up a trial with VR program manager Aisha Bowen.

“They put a lot of work into creating the experience for my father,” Vice said.

Being an intellectual omnivore, Becker seemed a perfect candidate for a VR experience.

“Lyle is just curious about life,” said Steve Brown, a long-time friend of Becker and a former 30-year Intel veteran and futurist. “He’s a very well-rounded, well-read individual that is interested in people and interested in every aspect of life.”

Flying Again in a New World

When Becker sat down and was fitted with HTC Vive VR goggles, no one at the lab was quite sure how he’d react, Brown said. Would he be able to see well? Would it feel overwhelming to him? Would it make him dizzy?

However, there was no need to worry about the century-old pilot who flew Curtiss C-46 Commando transport aircraft during World War II.

Immersed in the Aerofly FS 2 VR flight simulator, Becker expertly flew a single-engine plane, an experience that rivaled his days in the cockpit.

“It feels like the real thing. I felt like I was flying,” said the former flight instructor and commercial pilot. “The clarity of the instrument panel was good.”

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Lyle Becker, a former air traffic controller, has always been interested in technology.

The lab visit covered all virtual terrain, from sea to land to sky.

Exploring deep within the ocean, Becker found himself watching a stunning aquatic world as fish, sea urchins and other marine creatures swam all around him.

“It felt as though I was totally immersed in the aquarium rather than being on the outside looking in,” he said of theBlu: Encounter undersea VR experience.

“It felt one time as though one of the jellyfish was invading my body. I almost ingested it.”

On land, he explored Florence, Italy and Devils Tower National Park in Wyoming through Google Earth VR.

Golden Virtual Reality

Brown, who met Becker 20 years ago when he was a “spry” 80, knew that his friend would take to the virtual technology immediately. Becker sees the potential of VR to enhance the lives of active seniors and even those with more limited capabilities.

“You can go and visit locations that perhaps were on your bucket list but you’re not going to get around to,” said Becker.

But he also sees VR helping seniors stay in touch with friends and family in a way that today’s current social media can’t replicate.

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Becker explores a virtual sea, filled jellyfish and other marine creatures.

“To be able to have family visit you in virtual reality, to be able to go and see people who you’re not able to perhaps physically visit as often as you would like, gives you a facsimile of an experience where you feel like you’re sharing the same physical space as people that you care about,” said Becker, who was married for 72 years and raised six children.

While not every senior would don goggles to visit Tuscany or talk to family, Brown is confident that others like Becker who are interested in technology and staying connected will jump at the chance to use VR.

Becker does have one experience that he can’t wait to see in VR: a Dixieland jazz band playing down on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, complete with Mardi Gras dancing and singing.

“The evolution in technology is almost mind-blowing,” he said. “And of course I don’t have all that much time to wait — so get going.”

 

Rob Kelton contributed to this story.

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