Acting your avatar’s age: effects of virtual reality avatar embodiment on real life walking speed
When immersive virtual reality users employ digital self-representations, i.e., avatars, they may be subject to the Proteus effect. This effect describes changes in attitudes and behaviors in accordance with identity cues derived from the employed avatar’s appearance, which can persist after leaving virtual reality. Individual reactions to the experience can affect the strength of observed Proteus effects. Especially the experienced illusions of body ownership of avatars and of being in the virtual environment (spatial presence) have been discussed in this context. This study investigated a Proteus effect of avatar age on post-embodiment walking speed, with special focus on how body ownership and spatial presence moderated this effect. Participants who had previously embodied older avatars took significantly longer to walk a set distance than either young avatar or control group participants. This was only apparent during the first half of the walking phase, which may indicate fast decay rates of the effect after embodiment ended. The reported body ownership could not be shown to impact the strength of the Proteus effect. Participants reporting more pronounced spatial presence were subject to stronger Proteus effects, with only the two-thirds of the sample with higher spatial presence showing evidence of the effect.