Virtual Reality Lets Dying Woman 'Walk' Outside Again

Sometimes a simple walk outside can mean so much. Even if it’s not quite the real thing.

Last December, Roberta Firstenberg died of cancer at the age of 76. Before the throat tumor formed, her granddaughter Priscilla said that Roberta loved to travel and garden. She baked cookies. She was known for her delicious banana bread.

But cancer ultimately robbed Roberta of her ability to travel or ride in a car without great pain. Even the vibrations from being pushed in a wheelchair proved too much. That’s when Priscilla, a 29-year-old video game artist, reached out to Oculus Rift’s customer support center. She asked for one of the startup's popular virtual reality headsets that would allow her grandmother to “walk” outside again.

And the result can be seen in the video below, which was taken just a month before Roberta died.

“The Oculus Rift gave her options and gave her an experience that made her feel like she could walk again, without people having to hold her," Priscilla wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. "She got to go up stairs on her own. She got to do a great number of things we couldn’t give her.”

Since the video was posted in November and picked up interest again this week, Priscilla said the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Commentators with immobile loved ones said they wanted a headset of their own.

Priscilla admitted that she doesn’t watch the video now, preferring instead to remember the happier moments before her grandmother became ill.

“I can hear the difference in her voice, as it was getting tired from being used too much towards the end of her response,” Priscilla wrote, while also remarking how difficult it was to hear the sound of her sick dog in the background, the same dog she said she buried under her grandmother’s cherry blossom tree just a few days after filming. “The video has been described as ‘beautiful and sad’ by many. But because events are still fresh with me, it’s a marker of the most struggling time of my life.”

Most recently, Oculus Rift has been best known for its $2 billion buyout by Facebook, which imagines using the technology for non-gaming purposes like virtual classrooms and doctor visits. But Priscilla insists that her video wasn’t a PR stunt for the headset.

"It’s about using something that was thought of as just a video game, a toy,” Priscilla wrote, “and turning it into something more important than anyone could ever really understand."



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