Saturday, October 1, 2022

Dr. Alex Mihailidis on How the Metaverse Will Shape the Lives of Older Adults

The buzzword of the last two years was “pivot.” For 2022, it is “metaverse,” something often seen in news headlines. Though some feel the metaverse is primarily about virtual reality (VR) headsets and augmented reality eyewear, it goes beyond that. It marks a major shift in the way that technology will impact how we connect, create, think and look after our health. Older adults are ready to reap the benefits of the metaverse. A July 2020 AGE-WELL poll conducted by Environics Research showed that 72% of Canadians aged 65 and over feel confident using current technology.

Dr. Alex Mihailidis, scientific director and CEO, AGE-WELL, feels confident the metaverse has something to offer older Canadians, providing new virtual spaces in which people can interact. “First and foremost, it will help older adults maintain their social contact and maintain connectedness with their friends, their family, their communities,” he says. “And people will be able to continue doing activities that they’ve always loved doing but perhaps are not able to do anymore because of physical limitations or they can’t get to those activities. The metaverse will also allow older adults to remain in contact with their healthcare professionals. I think the metaverse and its various tools and applications are going to play a larger role in all those areas.”

Consumer demand driving technology innovation

But why is now the time to embrace the expansion of the metaverse? There are numerous factors in play, according to Dr. Mihailidis. You have large companies, such as Facebook, Google and Amazon, recognizing that there is a significant amount of consumer interest in the metaverse and technologies used to access it. Consumers themselves are becoming far more interested in things they can do online or virtually, fuelled to a degree by the pandemic. Also, add into the mix an aging Canadian population that includes baby boomers who have become adept at doing things online. 

AGE-WELL is at the forefront of exploring how the metaverse can be leveraged to enhance the lives of older Canadians, from “serious games” to improve engagement and connections for that demographic (like residents of a long-term care home participating in a virtual bowling league or cycling the streets of Paris with their friends) to apps that support remote healthcare. 

“AGE-WELL and our startups have developed and explored a lot of physical devices and technologies that may become virtual tools and approaches,” Dr. Mihailidis notes. Many will evolve for the metaverse. 

“We’re set to be a leader in this space,” he says. “Many of our researchers across the network have been investigating things like virtual reality and augmented reality, the use of other types of online tools, and artificial intelligence for at least 10 years and longer. We can work out a lot of the building blocks that make up the metaverse – how older people are adopting the technologies, what they would like to see in them and how they want to interact with them. The collective knowledge we have built over the past decade can help inform the further enhancement of the metaverse for older people, caregivers, healthcare providers and others.”

Giving older adults a say in how the metaverse evolves

AGE-WELL is also considering the challenges that come with the metaverse. Along with privacy and security issues, and transparency needed around any data collection through technologies, there are concerns about equity and access for engagement in the metaverse. A VR headset, Dr. Mihailidis points out, can cost several hundreds of dollars, making it difficult for many older adults and others to obtain. 

He’s also thinking about potential motion sickness with VR headsets and how people with cognitive impairment will be able to differentiate between what they’re seeing virtually and in real life. “A lot of this is hypothesizing,” he says. “But these issues offer fertile ground for research. There must be agreement between public and private partnerships, universities, government and industry on how these tools will be used by not only older adults but any vulnerable population.”

AGE-WELL is convening an expert group of its network members to look at the implications of the metaverse. As we further enhance the use of the metaverse, what does that look like? Researchers are already looking at policy, ethics and technologies that will impact older adults. 

“I’m excited about the metaverse, but more excited about us making the leap into it and starting to get research happening and working more closely with industry so we can help them shape those tools that will be used by older adults,” says Dr. Mihailidis. “We need to have a voice around that table, not just as researchers, but as a network with more than 5,000 older people and caregivers. We want to make sure all those voices are heard as technologies for the metaverse evolve.”

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Michele Sponagle
Michele Sponagle is a prolific lifestyle journalist based in Paris, Ontario, who has contributed to many leading media outlets, from the Washington Post to Canadian Living.