Students learn obesity reality in virtual world

University of Georgia professors are taking the battle against obesity into the virtual world. Using advanced computer simulations, specially designed avatars, virtual pets and interactive games, they hope to help students better understand how the choices they make affect their health.

“Just as the anti-smoking campaign changed the way people think, we need to use a multi-platform approach with social media to make an impact on obesity,” said Grace Ahn, assistant professor of advertising in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “Virtual environments help people to see the causality between what they eat and how it affects their bodies.”

During a simulation in Ahn’s virtual environment lab, a user can see what his or her avatar will look like 20 years from now. When students don a headset that covers the eyes, they see an animated reflection of themselves that ages-perhaps even gaining weight-as months and years pass by on a calendar next to the face. Ahn is investigating how users react to their avatars and how a virtual world helps participants to move in a particular space.

“Research shows that virtual environments are doing the best in terms of truly modifying people’s behaviors because it allows them to see that cause and effect relationship,” Ahn said.

Across campus, a physiology and pharmacology professor is creating software that will help undergraduate students learn about diabetes.

Scott Brown, a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor and the Edward H. Gunst Professor of Small Animal Studies in the College of Veterinary Medicine, recently received a grant to design and test gaming that will allow students to act as virtual scientists studying renal physiology in a virtual research lab.

“We’ve historically used textbooks, lectures and presentations with comparatively simple graphics, but science is very 3-D,” Brown said. “When students are growing up and playing immersive games at home, there’s an expectation for high-quality graphics, and we need to mirror that.”

Brown uses a similar dialysis case study in his First-Year Odyssey course this semester. By “flying into” a dialysis machine and using components of the machine to treat a patient, the students observe how their suggested changes affect the patient’s health.

“I’m hoping this will improve undergraduate education and understanding about obesity, diabetes and kidney disease,” Brown said. “We need tools to help young people understand the connections.”

On another part of campus, Kyle Johnsen, assistant professor in the College of Engineering, is helping elementary schoolchildren to understand the causes and complications of obesity.

During one study, a group of Georgia 4-H students learned the caloric density of different foods by using a haptic joystick, a device connected to a computer that allows the user to “feel” the physical properties of virtual objects by providing sensory feedback.

For example, Johnsen said, “water, chocolate milk and juice may feel the same until you switch the program to caloric density.”

Students are often surprised when picking up a potato versus fries or potato chips, he said. Although chips are much lighter than a whole potato, it’s heavier in the virtual world because they are full of calories rather than nutrients.

Now Johnsen and others are developing additional interfaces to allow students to compare the caloric contents of carbohydrates, proteins and fats and build a balanced plate of food.

“This concept is tough for young kids to understand,” he said. “Just because an item is lighter doesn’t mean there’s less food, and kids end up eating highly processed foods that are high in calories.”

In another project, Johnsen is linking the virtual world to the real-world effects of physical activity by asking students to take care of a virtual pet. The children will wear special pedometers that track their physical activity and diet, and they will be able to “fly into” the dog to see and feel the effects of obesity on the pet’s weight, energy and happiness.

“Telling students about caloric content, obesity and consequences doesn’t have a lot of impact,” Johnsen said. “Giving them that tangible experience of feeling weight is what changes behavior.”