In the aftermath of a very human tragedy nothing will beat a human touch – but it turns out tech can sometimes help make that first connection.

On the anniversary of the horrific Grenfell Tower tragedy, the local community is being offered VR as a way to help them talk about how they’re coping and, although it might seem leftfield, I think they could really be onto something.

The Central and North West London NHS trust (CNWL) team have joined forces with Rosie Collins, founder of tech and behavioural science company Fred, to bring the initiative to the streets of London.

Outreach volunteers have been lining Portobello Road and using VR headsets as a way to engage with people who might be less likely to go out and ask for help.

They ask people if they want to have a go on a VR roller coaster and have found the adrenaline rush is a great way to get them talking.

Grenfell health and wellbeing service manager Ross O’Brien has said lots of the people who are stopping to try the tech have a direct connection with the tower, and it’s clearly working as they’ve had 30 referrals as a result of the initiative.

He also believes it’s the first time the NHS has tried this type of approach with VR and that it lets the teams reach more people than they would otherwise be able to, which is a great example of how the health service can use tech to work smarter.

The teams are also looking at making a series of VR mindfulness films featuring local celebrities in the future and at working with Grenfell United on ways it could help transform the tower site.

It was also reported recently that Channel 4 will film a Grenfell documentary in VR later this year. Grenfell: Our Home will be a 15-minute film that will allow viewers to see what life was like inside the tower before the fire.

VR – no pain, lots of gain?

I’ve never broken a bone or had an operation, so I’m pretty nervous about my pain tolerance when something like that inevitably happens.

Having said that, if I can hold off on doing anything stupid for a while, by the time it does happen I might be able to turn to VR to help.

Graduate students at St Joseph's Hospital in France have been beavering away to create an immersive virtual program that helps patients relax and boost their pain tolerance without using painkillers.

The tech puts users in snowy hillsides and Japanese zen gardens, distracting them with beautiful scenescapes and sounds.

Dr Olivier Ganasia, head of the hospital's ER department, likens the experience to hypnosis.

"(It) enables us to offer patients a technique to distract their attention and curb their pain and anxiety when being treated in the emergency room...I think in 10 years, virtual reality won't even be a question anymore, and will be used in hospitals routinely,” he said.

It might not be time to chuck out the Ibuprofen yet but this could be a pretty cool, and I’d assume potentially even safer, way of managing pain in future.

The next generation of remote working

I love the rest of the BusinessCloud team but I can’t lie, the idea of being able to work in a room by myself fills me with a deep-seated and intense joy.

Luckily the Father of VoIPhas come up with a way to free me from the shackles of sociable working without sacrificing the benefits.

Richard Platt, who was key in creating IP phones way back in the ‘90s, has co-founded vSpatial, a VR office bringing us the next generation of remote working.

The app, which is currently free in the Oculus store and will be coming to more platforms soon, includes Slack access, VR team meetings and a personal workspace – and earlier this year it bagged $2.5m investment to help make it a (virtual) reality.

“Young professionals place a high value on the ability to work flexibly and remotely but also in having a sense of purpose and connection with their co-workers,” said vSpatial CEO Jon Sallaways.

“In virtual reality those two priorities are no longer in conflict.” 

Although I’m not sure how much I’d actually enjoy spending my entire working day inside a VR simulation, the idea of being able to work from anywhere without any of the hassles that often come with remote working is pretty tempting.

Shoppers ready to augment their experience

As far as I’m concerned, shopping is one of the most soul-destroying experiences a person can have. It’s tiring, busy and you either come away without the thing you wanted or without a chunk of your bank balance, so anything that can make the experience easier I’m all for.

Marketplace OnBuy has analysed a survey of 1,000 UK smartphone users from Mindshare and found that 80 per cent of shoppers want to use augmented reality on their phones to make the experience easier.

This could be anything from helping assemble pre-packed furniture (which is still a nightmare even with IKEA’s helpful flat-packs), to playing games and finding stores.

OnBuy also found that most people would rather engage with AR-enabled social media communication like filters and gifs through their smartphones rather than smart glasses, which isn’t surprising, as that’s what they’re used to.

There’s also an appetite for connected packaging, which would let shoppers scan a QR code on the packaging itself for things like assembly instructions, how to use the product or brand info but again overwhelmingly through smartphones rather than smart glasses.

Even when it comes to things that you need your hands free for – like assembling furniture or recipe tutorials – respondents still picked their smartphone.

Step inside your VR memory palace

I have one of the worst memories in the world when it comes to useful information. Lyrics from songs I haven’t heard for a decade? Word perfect. My nephew’s birthday? Funny stories from childhood? What I just came downstairs to look for? Not so much.

Luckily, according to researchers from the University of Maryland, VR might have the answer.

The researchers did one of the first in-depth analyses of the link between immersive learning and recall and found that people remember information better if it’s given to them in a virtual environment.

The team used a technique dating back to classical times of getting people to drop objects into an imaginary physical location called a memory palace – often somewhere like a building or town.

Because humans are visual learners we link information to visual places – and when you’re fully immersed in that place apparently it becomes even easier.

They found an 8.8 per cent improvement overall in memory for the people using the VR headsets rather than desktops – which is apparently a bigger deal than it sounds – and many of the participants said that being immersed in the experience helped them focus.

Getting a foot in the world of VR

First VR brought us headsets, then headphones, then vibrating backpacks and now Cybershoes.

Users strap the affordable ‘shoes’ onto their feet, which lets them walk or run inside VR simulations with more control, giving them an even more immersive experience.

You can go feet-first into any VR game with the Cybershoes, which are being debuted at the E3 gaming expo, and they can be used with any of the SteamVR, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Windows Mixed Reality headsets.

As well as gaming benefits, the shoes – which will be coming to Kickstarter later in the year – could be used in loads of other interesting ways like for physical rehab, construction previews and training and planning for industrial facilities.