Forever Young in Virtual Reality? Virtual Embodiment for Real-World Healthy Longevity

By: Olivia Ramirez

WASHINGTON, DC (December 4, 2020) – In 2015, a series of terrorist attacks in Paris, France shook a country to its core. At the time, Dr. Alexandra Ivanovitch, CEO of EQLab, was a research fellow in digital humanities at the Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires in Paris and felt a pressing responsibility to use cutting-edge technology and her scientific expertise to help her community heal. That’s when she started exploring the potential of virtual reality (VR) to foster peaceful dialogue and promote pro-social behavior.

Dr. Alexandra Ivanovitch

When she moved to Miami, Florida in 2018, Ivanovitch found a new community in need: senior citizens. She decided to focus on identifying novel solutions to improve their quality of life and increase their psychological well-being.

Her VR work for seniors’ well-being began with a grassroots initiative to grant their wishes through immersive technology. Ivanovitch prepared a presentation for the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners, received funding from the Miami-Dade Age-Friendly Initiative, and hired a team to collect seniors’ wishes.

Unleashed from the constraints of the physical world, seniors were able to travel the globe in virtual reality, tick off elements of their bucket lists, revisit their homeland, time-travel to Ancient Greece, set foot where no human has ever gone before and leave their mark on Mars. But by far, the wish seniors most commonly expressed was to be young again. That may sound impossible, but Ivanovitch says, “It’s 100 percent possible. Anything that can be imagined can be 3D modeled.”

Senior Cuban Americans go back to Cuba in VR at the Domino Park in Little Havana, Miami, FL.

In order to make this recurring dream come true for seniors, Ivanovitch launched a specific initiative called “Virtually Young”. Thanks to this project, in October 2020, Ivanovitch became a National Academy of Medicine (NAM) Catalyst Awardee through the Healthy Longevity Global Competition. Her proposal “Virtually Young: Can Embodying an Avatar of Your Younger Self Extend Your Healthy Lifespan? was awarded $50,000 USD and travel expenses to the annual Innovator Summit.

Currently, Ivanovitch and her team already have a working prototype, where seniors can choose their avatars, and travel the world and fulfill their wishes together with their loved ones in shared immersive worlds. Ivanovitch plans to use her Catalyst Award funding to systematically examine the effects of this virtual embodiment intervention on seniors’ psychological well-being and sense of social connectedness.

Numerous peer-reviewed studies have already demonstrated that virtual experiences can induce perceptual and behavioral change in the real-world. The core question Ivanovitch aims to answer is, “What happens when seniors get to fulfill their dream of being young and healthy again in virtual reality? How much of this virtual experience translates into real-world psychological benefits?”

To access experiences, all that seniors and their family members need is a smartphone, tablet, personal computer, or for the lucky few, a VR headset. The technology is entirely web-based to make it easier to use, access, and enjoy.

Seniors connect socially while experiencing VR at a senior daycare center in Hialeah, FL.

There is no need for an expensive VR headset in order to participate: health equity is a built-in value for the project. Ivanovitch further explains, “web-based VR also allows us to make this initiative entirely future-proof. We are freed from the constraints of specific platforms and their vicissitudes. In a volatile hardware landscape, regardless of what happens, the project will live on.”

For Ivanovitch, the Healthy Longevity Global Competition provides an opportunity to push the limits of technology and connect with a worldwide scientific community. This Competition has already made one of her personal dreams come true, which is to combine both social impact and scientific inquiry.

Ultimately, for Ivanovitch, it’s only fitting that her team should be doing this VR project for healthy longevity straight out of Florida, where 16th century explorers like Ponce de Leon allegedly looked for the mythical Fountain of Youth. “Except that we are not looking for it. We are engineering it – one avatar at a time.”

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