A Virtual Games that Wins a Gold Medal for Innovation

To retirement living and aged care leader Ryman Healthcare, retirement isn’t about stepping back from the world – it’s about pioneering a new way of living. After a year of focusing on health, safety and COVID-19 prevention, Ryman wanted to bring some fun back to its engagements with village residents, and it was willing to use every digital tool in its kitbag. It teamed up with New Zealand tech solutions provider, Aware Group, to create a high-tech homage to the Olympic Games, enabling Anzac athletes regardless of age to break out the running shoes, put on their game faces and bust the pandemic blues by competing for a spot on the (virtual) podium.

Ryman Healthcare is a pioneer of the retirement village industry, having introduced the concept to New Zealand four decades ago.  Across its 42 villages in Australia and New Zealand (with more on the way), it strives to provide the best possible lifestyles for its residents.

“Ryman is a company that will over-invest in resident experiences. We want to continue to lead and take advantage of emerging technology and digital innovation to deliver even better experiences for our residents,” says Mary-Anne Stone, Chief Strategy Officer at Ryman.

With the emergence of COVID-19 and lockdown in March and April 2020, Ryman stepped up its engagement with residents dramatically, recognising the anxiety and isolation that could have resulted in such uncertain times. But after the vaccination rollouts started happening and the outlook was looking more settled, the company was determined not to lose that level of engagement. Even better, after focusing on safety for so long, Ryman’s leaders wanted to bring fun back to every interaction.

“We wanted to find a way to embrace technology that enabled people to be more physically active and engaged together,” Mary-Anne explains.

As a joint executive working group  plotted the launch of Ryman’s new digital innovation strategy, talk turned (as it so often does) to sports – the upcoming Olympic Games. Then they had a medal-winning idea.

Was it possible for Ryman to host its own games, harnessing the latest technology to enable aspiring athletes from across all its villages to compete against each other?

That brainwave got the (virtual) ball rolling for the world’s first ever international game of lawn bowls played on both sides of the Tasman – and a whole lot more.

Selecting the winning events

Digital specialist Aware Group had a track record in exploring technology for positive ageing. The brief from Ryman jolted its team into action like a starter pistol, inspiring them to develop a whole stadium-full of games that could be adapted for digital connectivity. However, there were some special considerations. After devising a list of 12 potential activities, the Aware Group team then worked alongside Ryman to identify the most practical ones.

First of all, the games had to be suitable for a whole range of participants – average age 83 – to get as many people as possible involved, which ruled out more skilled (or dangerous) sports. Gymnastics, synchronised swimming, boxing and equestrian events – scratched.

The events chosen also had to be easy to judge and organise across 42 different locations. While Internet of Things (IoT) connected devices and mixed reality HoloLens headsets were available, their supply wasn’t limitless. That meant slightly more complicated games like golf didn’t make it across the finish line either.

Five events made the final selection – lawn bowls, 30m breaststroke, a six-member half marathon walking relay, 10km bike race and (for the less sporty types), a digital quiz.

Relay walking a virtual Mt Fuji

Next came the question of how to enable everyone’s progress and position in their various locations to be mapped and monitored in real time. Aware Group’s solution was to equip every village with Microsoft Surface devices loaded with PowerApps, which were not only hugely useful for managing registrations, health and safety information and inputting scores, they  also showed competitors a view of a real hiking trail on Mt Fuji and mapped their progress on screen as if they were really in Japan. Pools had digital touchpads installed to enable winners to be identified, and relay time trials could either be run outside or on a treadmill with the aid of smart IoT trackers.

“We took a real agile approach, with constant changes each day to refine our ideas and get them working in reality. Designing the technology, deploying it across all locations across the Tasman and communicating the rules is a big job, and we wanted to make it as easy as possible for the Ryman team,” said Brandon Hutcheson, CEO of Aware Group.

Probably the most creative solutions were those used to host the bike race, relay walks and lawn bowls events. Obviously, it’s not easy to ensure competitors around the country are cycling on a level playing field, so to speak. So stationary bikes were programmed with the same “hills” and speed levels for every rider, increasing resistance automatically as riders reached the “inclines” and speeding up for downhill stretches. Meanwhile, the cyclists themselves could experience cycling through a virtual Japanese landscape.

To enable the lawn bowls events, real greens in Hamilton and Christchurch were set up with digital cameras. Every time a player bowled, Microsoft artificial intelligence (AI) technology could map the position of each bowl onto a HoloLens mixed reality headset worn by an Aware Group bowls official on the opposing team’s green, The official could then place bowls in the exact location they landed in the real world, in a synchronised dance between bowlers and headset-wearing officials on both sides of the Tasman,   Each team was shown the same view as the HoloLens on a Surface device at each location (to avoid dispute!).. It sounds fiendishly complicated, but the technology deployed by Aware Group on Microsoft Azure made the whole thing seamless.

The epitome of pioneer spirit

The response from Ryman’s residents was phenomenal, with hundreds of people vying for selection via heats and time trials.

“This was many residents’ first encounter with some of this technology. Seeing an avatar of themselves cycling past Lake Taupo and realising this was mirroring what they were doing in real life, was totally new. It’s been an extraordinary experiment,” said Mary-Anne.

The finals kicked off to coincide with the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Medals were on the line in each category, with everyone across Ryman’s villages able to follow their teams via live leaderboards in their community centres and online. Screenings were held each evening so people could come together and watch or view them on their own devices.

While the world’s first remote lawn bowls international between New Zealand and Australia was unable to proceed owing to a COVID-19 lockdown in Victoria, the stage – or in this case, green – is now set for a trans-Tasman event in future.

“Ryman pride themselves on being pioneers and this couldn’t be a better demonstration of that spirit. This is a ground-breaking idea that’s bringing people together at a time when travel is all but impossible – full credit to Ryman and Aware Group for such an incredibly innovative use of technology. We’re delighted that Microsoft has been able to support this amazing achievement and none of us can wait to see what happens next. May the best team win!” said Matt Bostwick, Partner Director for Microsoft New Zealand.

Ryman and Aware Group are now working on more ways to keep the games spirit alive once the events are over. Mary-Anne thinks the lawn bowls is likely to become a regular trans-Tasman fixture, and Aware Group is designing a solution that could enable teams to play against a robot.

“Maybe we’ll be able to play against more countries – we’d love to see greater use of holoportation through HoloLens devices and augmented reality support our wellbeing programmes going forward,” Mary-Anne said.

“This combination of fitness and technology and social interaction is the future of resident care.”