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Goggles offer seniors a virtual view to a thrill

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Updated: May 30, 2014 7:08AM

When Anne Warne was a kid, she stood with her father on their Northwest Side back porch watching a solar eclipse through a piece of colored celluloid.

In the intervening 80 or so years, a lot has changed.

“And not for the better, believe me,” said the 93-year-old widow.

But on Thursday, the woman who remembers milk being delivered to her doorstep by horse and cart saw something that thrilled her: a computer-generated view of Earth that makes people feel like they’re astronauts floating in the heavens.

“I’m in the sky right now!” said a delighted Warne. “O-o-o-h, isn’t that pretty, all the stars.”

Warne joined a group of about 40 people at Oak Street Health, a seniors health clinic and community center where the biggest thrill typically comes from a high Scrabble score. On Thursday, thanks to Douglas Roberts, a Northwestern University professor of physics and astronomy, the seniors each slipped on a pair of virtual-reality goggles and explored space with little more than a tilt of the head.

For Roberts, who is more accustomed to showing the technology to scientists and the super rich, Thursday’s demonstration was eye-opening.

“It’s hard to impress billionaires ... but some of them can actually afford to get a ride to the actual space station,” Roberts said. “All these people here, this is their one chance to broaden their horizons and see the world in a way they haven’t before.”

“It was absolutely beautiful,” said Lani Pachorek. “We see so many stars at night, but never that close.”

For seniors who aren’t as agile as they once were, the goggles offered a brief, virtual return to their youth.

“I was there,” said John Mikel, 73, marveling at the experience. “It was wondrous. We’re all young at heart, and this kind of brings it back. ... I feel like I’m 12 years old watching that.”

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