Virtual reality allows WWII veteran to travel the globe from his chair
Like something out of a fairy tale — sans the magic portal — 96-year-old John Wolfe trades his small bedroom for vibrant cities and stunning vistas thousands of miles from his home in the Country Meadows Retirement Community.
And all the World War II veteran has to do to be whisked away on new adventures is fasten a pair of virtual reality goggles atop his head.
"I'm from the old school, so this is mind-boggling to me," Wolfe said. "You can have an almost real-life experience, so you have bragging rights."
For Wolfe and other residents of Country Meadows, the Rendever-branded technology is life changing.
Two virtual reality headsets came to Country Meadows eight weeks ago as part of a pilot program to introduce new technology for residents like Wolfe.
There are 10 Country Meadows campuses piloting the technology program, so the headsets are being shared across the state, according to Bonnie Geisinger, the director of dynamic living at the West Manchester Township retirement community.
"For those residents who have never traveled, they're traveling for the first time. For those residents who have traveled in the past, they're revisiting those places," Geisinger said. "They can have a conversation with their grandchildren — there's an intergenerational connection."
Residents who have participated in Geisinger's virtual reality programs immediately fell in love.
Sessions meant to last only a half hour turned into 90 minutes.
"They didn't want to stop," Geisinger said. "They just wanted to continue to explore."
The sky's the limit with virtual reality technology; residents at Country Meadows have gone kayaking, visited their childhood homes via Google Earth, spent time with animals, walked through museums and traveled across the globe.
The headset technology tracks to where the user is looking — so if a resident turns or walks a few steps forward, they will be able to explore more around them. Experiences are accompanied by voice narration that teaches facts or encourages the user to look in a certain direction.
In Wolfe's case, he enjoys using his virtual reality headset with a rotating chair that enhances the feeling of being able to move 360 degrees around the simulated environment. On one recent session, he visited a zoo and reached out his hand to pet a cheetah.
"It feels like you're just there, you're a part of it," he said. "You can reach out and touch it. Feel as though you can touch the animals as they pass by."
Wolfe, born and raised in York County, graduated from West York Area High School in 1943 before enlisting in the Navy that July. With a fascination for all things flight, Wolfe studied aviation mechanics at Chicago's Navy Pier.
He had a choice to either sign up for the Grumman TBF Avenger or the PV-1 twin engine bomber and chose the latter. But two weeks before he was to be sent off, he broke his collarbone and was out of commission for 40 days.
"I had a vision, a dream, a man stood right by my bed and talked to me," Wolfe recalled. "And his exact words were: 'John, you did not chicken out when you did not sign up for the TBF. Your dad suffered enough back in December of 1930.'"
At that time, Wolfe lost both his mother and sister in an auto accident. Reflecting on his decisions in the war, Wolfe decided that his dad had suffered through enough and was grateful for everything that had happened, as they happened.
Many friends who signed up for the Grumman TBF Avenger did not return, Wolfe said.
"At that time we used an expression, 'Do you want to be a living coward or a dead hero?'" Wolfe said. "I guess at that time I wanted to be a dead hero."
In 1946, Wolfe was discharged from service and used the G.I. Bill to pursue further aviation education. After a long career with planes, Wolfe retired in 1987 and kept busy making grandfather clocks and stained glass art.
With childhood memorabilia and tiny airplanes scattered through his room, Wolfe is always reminded of the spirit of adventure.
Though he misses flying, his ability to see through virtual reality is a reminder of the world out there.