Campus News

Virtually real

Grace Ahn

UGA researchers use computer-simulated world to increase impact of obesity lessons

UGA researchers 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, an 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.

“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.

This spring, a First-Year Odyssey seminar taught by Scott Brown, a Meigs Professor and the Edward H. Gunst Professor of Small Animal Studies in the College of Veterinary Medicine, focused on kidney disease, which strongly is associated with obesity.

Brown recently was awarded a grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, a part of the National Institutes of Health, to improve student engagement in biomedical research through interactive technologies.

As part of the class, students will use new gaming software to act virtually like health professionals who are treating kidney disease patients. By flying into a dialysis machine and using components of the machine, the students will 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.

On another part of campus, Kyle Johnsen, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering, is helping elementary schoolchildren 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 often are 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.

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.