By Daphnée Malboeuf
Use virtual reality to develop interactive simulations that benefit physical and cognitive rehabilitation: this is the goal of the new business Embrace The Life VR.
Eager to create a project with a social impact, Arthur Zaiat and Naima Abbadi thought of using virtual reality to make Montréal more accessible to people with reduced mobility while talking with their friends and new coworkers, Grigore Ciobanu and Iulian Ciobanu, both of whom have myopathy.
“Artur said that virtual reality was mainly used for video games, but he wanted his project to have a social impact,” recalls Abbadi, co-founder of the project. “I felt that there were several therapeutic uses we could come up with that could incorporate virtual reality.”
During conversations with their wheelchair-bound friends, the idea was expanded.
“When we discussed issues faced by people in wheelchairs, our friends talked to us about the difficulty of moving around the city and also about the fact that people weren’t using public transit, the subway in particular, because of the anxiety and dread that it can cause,” says Abbadi, who has a doctorate in Biological and Medical Engineering. “They told us that there were often few signs, that they were afraid of getting stuck, etc.”
That’s when they had the idea to set up a simulation through virtual reality, allowing people with reduced mobility to reduce the anxiety related to using public transit.
The prototype set up by Embrace The Life VR will allow people to go through their desired route, from the entrance to a metro station’s boarding platform, and how to leave as well. The mobile application, which should be on the market in six weeks, will be free and the virtual reality headset required for it will be made of cardboard so that people can easily access it from their cell phones.
“We will first test the appetite for the product by calculating the number of downloads and likes and, if the reception is good, we will go forward with all of the metro stations,” says Abbadi.
On top of the metro, Embrace The Life VR also chose to include the city’s buses in its program.
“We know that there are now practice and training sessions to allow people to learn how to take the bus without hurting themselves or others. We set up a program that does this through virtual reality. The individual sees the bus coming, sees the ramp and practices getting aboard.”
“The effect of virtual reality allows us to tangibly experience it. You feel like you’re there, it’s interactive and your engagement is real. The individual is immersed in the environment and can interact with and ask for things. It’s very realistic, because the quality of the visuals is so good that you believe you’re there.”
There are various practice platforms, like virtual practice runs allowing users to self-evaluate and restart as many times as they want without needing to travel—a process which also takes into account the level of learning of each and every person.
“By reducing people’s anxiety, we are empowering them to go out, be autonomous and increase their social integration,” states Abbadi. “Whether this is going grocery shopping, going to school or going out in the evening.”
The business, which recently joined the Fonds de solidarité FTQ-QI Innovation Lab, has had the opportunity to meet several entrepreneurs and investors during various networking activities, on top of benefitting from free infrastructure for developing their ideas.
“When I saw the opportunity, I dove right in,” says Abbadi. “We are really proud because we are in the first cohorts and we share a common vision, a more human vision, and that’s what attracted us in the beginning.”
Embrace The Life VR’s project demonstrates that one of the many possible uses of virtual reality—designed for having fun—is to apply it to a social cause. While waiting for the start-up to deploy the next part of its mobility aid service, it is reassuring to know that technology entrepreneurs care about serving the community with their knowledge.