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Can virtual reality help seniors? Study hopes to find out

Associated Press

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Virtual Reality

Terry Colli and three other residents of the John Knox Village senior community got a trip via computer to the International Space Station on Tuesday, a kickoff to a Stanford University study on whether virtual reality can improve the emotional well-being of older people.

Donning 1-pound (470-gram) headsets with video and sound, the four could imagine floating weightless with astronauts and get a 360-degree tour of the station. In other programs, residents can take virtual visits to Paris, Venice, Egypt or elsewhere around the globe; attend a car rally, skydive or go on a hike.

“I feel great. It is amazing. It is like you are really there,” said Colli, 73, and a former spokesman for the Canadian embassy in Washington.

Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab will be working with John Knox’s 1,200 residents, who will have ready access to the equipment under the supervision of staff members. The goal is to see whether virtual reality can improve their mood, strengthen their relationships with staff and make them more receptive to technology. Other senior communities in the United States and elsewhere will soon be added by the California university.

Virtual reality works by making what the person sees and hears track with what they are doing. In a VR trip to Paris, for example, a participant might turn to the left and see the Eiffel Tower with a musician playing in the foreground, and then turn right and find two people conversing. If the participant moves toward one, that sound increases while the other diminishes.

“There is a fair amount of previously published research by academic labs around the world that shows VR, when administered properly, can help reduce anxiety, improve mood, and reduce pain,” said Jeremy Bailenson, the Stanford lab’s founding director. “This particular study is focused on how using VR might reduce the residents’ feelings of isolation from the outside world — all the more important after the isolation we all faced during the pandemic.”

During Tuesday’s demonstration at the suburban Fort Lauderdale community, Colli, Anne Selby, 77; Mark Levey, 64; and Hugh Root, 92, moved their heads from left to right and up and down as they got individual tours of the space station.

“It really felt like you were traveling — and not alone either. In some of the video, there are people,” said Levey, a former federal government worker.

Selby, an artist, said that she felt a bit nauseated as she moved through the space station because it was so realistic, but that she was able to cope by taking deep breaths.

“Regardless of my age, I was right in the middle of it,” she said.

Root, a retired insurance salesman, was blunt: “It blows my mind.”

Chris Brickler, CEO of MyndVR, the Dallas company that provided the equipment, said volunteers will be screened to assure they are mentally suitable for using virtual reality and each attendant has an abort button if the person becomes overwhelmed by the experience. John Knox’s residents include people and couples who live alone, in assisted living and with full-time nursing.

“As we age, we feel there is a disconnect sometimes that can happen when there is a lack of mobility,” Brickler said. “We can’t travel as much as we want, we can’t connect with nature as much as we want, can’t have connections with animals. All sorts of connections get lost and our four walls start shrinking in. What we have tried to do is create a platform where we can bring the world back.”

Monica McAfee, John Knox’s chief marketing and innovation officer, said the community’s administrators believe VR helps residents — it’s been used on a limited basis there for three years — but Stanford’s study “will provide the empirical data.” For example, she said, they want to know if VR can help residents with dementia who suffer from “sundowning” — severe mood downswings that begin at dusk.

“Is this a way to redirect them to enjoy something?” she said.

Northern Ohio University associate philosophy professor Erica Neely, who studies the ethics of technology, said it’s important that Stanford is getting fully informed consent, screening participants and making sure they aren’t using VR alone, especially at first. She is not involved in the study.

“We definitely don’t want anyone to get stuck in the experience if they become distressed and can’t figure out how to turn it off,” she said. “The fact that there is a companion/caretaker who can go with (the participant) is utter genius. … The idea of ‘Well, we don’t necessarily have people with diminished capacities wandering around by themselves through physical space — maybe we can do the same for virtual space’ was a really good one.”


POMPANO BEACH, Fla. (AP) — By TERRY SPENCER Associated Press

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US to seek automated braking requirement for heavy trucks

Associated Press

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In a reversal from Trump administration policies, U.S. auto safety regulators say they will move to require or set standards for automatic emergency braking systems on new heavy trucks.

The Department of Transportation, which includes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, announced the change Friday when it released its spring regulatory agenda.

It also will require what it said are rigorous testing standards for autonomous vehicles, and set up a national database to document automated-vehicle crashes.

The moves by the administration of President Joe Biden run counter to the agency’s stance under President Donald Trump. NHTSA had resisted regulation of automated-vehicle systems, saying it didn’t want to stand in the way of potential life-saving developments. Instead it relied on voluntary safety plans from manufacturers.

NHTSA had proposed a regulation on automatic emergency braking in 2015 before Trump took office, but it languished in the regulatory process. The agency says it has been studying use of the electronic systems, and it plans to publish a proposed rule in the Federal Register in April of next year. When a regulation is published, it opens the door to public comment.

“We are glad to see NHTSA finally take the next step in making large trucks safer by mandating AEB,” said Jason Levine, director of the Center for Auto Safety, which was among the groups that petitioned for the requirement in 2015. “Unfortunately, at this rate, it will still be years until the technology that could help stop the 5,000 truck crash deaths on our roads is required,” he said in an email.

A trade group representing independent big rig drivers says the technology isn’t ready for heavy vehicles and can unexpectedly activate without reason.

“Our members have also reported difficulties operating vehicles in inclement weather when the system is engaged, which has created safety concerns,” the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association said in a statement.

The association says that while the technology is still being perfected, legislators and regulators shouldn’t set time frames for requiring it on all trucks.

However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group supported by auto insurers, found in a study last year that automatic emergency braking and forward collision warnings could prevent more than 40% of crashes in which semis rear-end other vehicles. A study by the group found that when rear crashes happened, the systems cut speeds by more than half, reducing damage and injuries.

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, another group that sought the regulation from NHTSA in 2015, said the agency is moving too slowly by not publishing the regulation until next year.

“I don’t understand the delay,” she said. “I know that might sound impatient, but when people are dying on the roads, 5,000 people are dying on the roads each year, and we have proven solutions, we would like to see more immediate action,” she said.

In 2016, NHTSA brokered a deal with 20 automakers representing 99% of U.S. new passenger vehicle sales to voluntarily make automatic emergency braking standard on all models by Sept. 1, 2022. But that deal did not apply to big rigs.

The announcement of the requirements comes two days after four people were killed when a milk tanker going too fast collided with seven passenger vehicles on a Phoenix freeway. At least nine people were injured.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates crashes and makes recommendations to stop them from happening, said Thursday it would send a nine-person team to investigate the Phoenix crash. The agency said it would look at whether automatic emergency braking in the truck would have mitigated or prevented the crash.

Since at least 2015 the NTSB has recommended automatic emergency braking or collision alerts be standard on vehicles.

At present, there are no federal requirements that semis have forward collision warning or automatic emergency braking, even though the systems are becoming common on smaller passenger vehicles.

The systems use cameras and sometimes radar to see objects in front of a vehicle, and they either warn the driver or slow and even stop the vehicle if it’s about to hit something.


DETROIT (AP) — By TOM KRISHER AP Auto Writer

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Google pledges to resolve ad privacy probe with UK watchdog

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Google has promised to give U.K. regulators a role overseeing its plan to phase out existing ad-tracking technology from its Chrome browser as part of a competition investigation into the tech giant.

The U.K. competition watchdog has been investigating Google’s proposals to remove so-called third-party cookies over concerns they would undermine digital ad competition and entrench the company’s market power.

To address the concerns, Google on Friday offered a set of commitments including giving the Competition and Markets Authority an oversight role as the company designs and develops a replacement technology.

“The emergence of tech giants such as Google has presented competition authorities around the world with new challenges that require a new approach,” Andrea Coscelli, the watchdog’s chief executive, said.

The Competition and Markets Authority will work with tech companies to “shape their behaviour and protect competition to the benefit of consumers,” he said.

The promises also include “substantial limits” on how Google will use and combine individual user data for digital ad purposes and a pledge not to discriminate against rivals in favor of its own ad businesses with the new technology.

If Google’s commitments are accepted, they will be applied globally, the company said in a blog post.

Third-party cookies – snippets of code that log user info – are used to help businesses more effectively target advertising and fund free online content such as newspapers. However, they’ve also been a longstanding source of privacy concerns because they can be used to track users across the internet.

Google shook up the digital ad industry with its plan to do away with third-party cookies, which raised fears newer technology would leave even less room for online ad rivals.


LONDON (AP).

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Amazon now says remote work OK 2 days a week

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Amazon now says remote work OK 2 days a week

Corporate and tech employees at Amazon won’t have to work in offices full time after coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

The Seattle Times reports the online retail giant said in a company blog post Thursday that those workers can work remotely two days a week. In addition, the employees can work remotely from a domestic location for four full weeks each year.

Amazon’s work policy update follows backlash from some employees to what they interpreted as the expectation they would have to return to the office full time once states reopen.

Some tech companies had launched recruiting campaigns that seemed targeted in part at Amazon workers’ dismay over an end to remote work.

Most Amazon employees will start heading back to offices as soon as local jurisdictions fully reopen — July 1 in Washington state — with the majority of workers in offices by autumn, the company said previously.

Amazon has about 75,000 employees in the greater Seattle area. The company’s new remote-work plan is similar to other large tech companies.

Google said last month that it expected roughly 60% of its workforce to come into the office a few days a week, and for 20% to work from home full time. Google also gave all employees the option to work remotely full time four weeks per year. Facebook and Microsoft have both said most workers can choose to stay remote.

Amazon’s new policy could add to the challenges faced by Seattle’s traditional business core. In pre-pandemic times, tens of thousands of Amazon workers commuted into the South Lake Union neighborhood north of downtown every day. Most haven’t returned.

More than 450 downtown retailers, restaurants and other street-level business locations have closed permanently in the 16 months since the pandemic sent office workers home, according to a Downtown Seattle Association survey.

Of the roughly 175,000 people who worked in downtown offices before the pandemic, 80% continue to work remotely, according to association data.


SEATTLE (AP)

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