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Turning Virtual Reality into Reality: A Checklist to Ensure Virtual Reality Studies of Eating Behavior and Physical Activity Parallel the Real World

Can virtual reality (VR) be used for conducting eating behavior and physical activity studies simulating real life conditions? Researchers Aner Tal, PhD and Brian Wansink, PhD explore the possibilities and limitations of using VR as a means of exploring real-life eating behavior and physical activity and propose a checklist on how to improve the technology to ensure the highest degree of accuracy.

VR has been used as a cost-effective, safe and flexible way to study various aspects of human behavior and judgment including obesity and eating disorders, improving eating habits, health behaviors, and shopping behavior. Yet, this technology can easily ignore subtle differences in behavior, which can make VR results inapplicable to real life. In order to parallel the real world VR must successfully operate through the process of mental simulation, a critical component in much of real-world human judgment and behavior. As such, researchers need to ensure that the conditions support its presence as they would in a real-world environment.

Mental simulation has been shown to alter judgments of the possibility for action, duration required for action, and physical dimensions of the environment. For instance, carrying a heavy load makes distances appear longer in people’s simulations of crossing a distance and, consequently, leads to distance extension. Studies conducted by the researchers (unpublished data) have shown the links between the presence of simulation and judgment of food products, with potential implications for food choices and health. In a study involving heavy backpacks, participants carrying heavier loads judged products to require less storage space, 2.49 vs. 3.37 on a 9-point scale. Burden also had an effect when participants were asked to judge how much food to fit in a bowl, which resulted in them feeling that they would need more of an item. This type of study takes into account physical expenditure, as certain conditions are necessary for mental simulation, such as when judging the energy currency of food, which might not be taken into account in a VR setting. The questionable reality of the situation could influence how a person reacts to it.

In light of their explorations researchers propose a checklist of crucial factors in turning VR into Reality. For example, they state that all relevant senses need to be involved in a VR environment, not just sight, but smell, sound, and touch. Similarly, care must be taken that irrelevant externalities (laboratory conditions, VR equipment, people in the actual environment) do not interfere with the VR environment.