Apart from heavy usage in the game industry, Virtual Reality has been gaining focus in recent years in the health world. When it comes down to pain treatment, VR has been proven to be effective for acute pain. However, VR has been inadequately studied regarding its efficacy in dealing with chronic pain, and insufficient explorations have been in place to consolidate best practices. In this direction, a VR environment named LumaPath has been built by the Pain Studies Lab at Simon Fraser University for assisting ageing patients with arthritis with managing their chronic sufferings by motivating them to conduct Range of Motion (RoM) activities, as RoM is an essential component proven to be effective for alleviating arthritic pain symptoms. In the initial version of LumaPath, even when the testing users were indeed motivated to conduct RoM activities, they reported senses of loneliness and uncertainty about what to do. These voices were abstracted as the need for social presence inside VR, hereby defined as the sense of being with another entity delivering verbal or non-verbal information. To mediate LumaPath into a VR environment better for its purpose, this thesis tries to address such need from arthritic seniors (the target users of LumaPath) by first putting forward a list of potential forms of social presence that can be introduced to this VR environmnent, and then chooses a companion scout with navigation capability to move forward with design and implementation. A mixed methods study consisting of quantitative questionnaire and qualitative inquiry is conducted with 16 participants (ages 56-89, 8 females) diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) and/or Osteoarthritis (OA) to measure to what extent this scout brings a sense of social presence into the scene, reduces a sense of loneliness, and provides guidance inside LumaPath when maintaining the original goal of LumaPath. This thesis discusses the findings regarding the perspectives of arthritic seniors about an assistive virtual character inside a VR environment, their preferences regarding forms of companion and assistance, and concludes with feasible improvements that can be made to the companion scout, preferable ways of providing support inside a VR environment promoting physical activity such as LumaPath, and design directions for creating better immersive environments for the ageing generation with chronic conditions.
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Thesis advisor: Shaw, Chris
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