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Virtual Reality Technologies for Research and Education in Obesity and Diabetes: Research Needs and Opportunities

Ershow, Abby, Charles Peterson, William Riley, Albert Rizzo, and Brian Wansink (2011). Virtual Reality Technologies for Research and Education in Obesity and Diabetes: Research Needs and Opportunities. Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology, 5(2), 212-224

In the United States, nearly two-thirds of adults and one-third of children and adolescents are either overweight or obese. The prevalence of diabetes and pre-diabetes is also high among the United States population. Current treatment and prevention plans rely on sustained behavioral changes and a high level of self-monitoring that are currently not working.

The Virtual Reality Technologies for Research and Education in Obesity and Diabetes workshop was held on July 15-16, 2010 to explore the research potential of virtual reality (VR) technologies as tools for behavioral and neuroscience studies in diabetes and obesity, and the practical potential of VR in fostering more effective utilization of diabetes-and obesity-related nutrition and lifestyle information. Six institutes and offices of the National Institutes of Health and the United States Army and Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center attended along with university faculty, government program officers, medical professionals, small and corporate business representatives and student interns.

The controllable, multisensory, interactive, three dimensional stimulus environments that VR technologies provide could be used for research, prevention, or treatment of diabetes and obesity. Research was considered in each of five potential areas of impact. First would be using VR to foster desirable eating, physical activity, and other health related behaviors. The second area would be utilizing motivational and teaching aspects of VR technology in prevention and treatment options. Using VR to extend the availability and capacity of health care providers would be the third. Fourth would be using VR to motivate by fast forwarding to the future, with both good and bad outcomes. The final area would be utilizing the social network capabilities of VR. Discussions took place to consider the opportunities of these areas of research, as well as possible challenges related to the accessibility, availability, and use of VR applications.

As of yet, there has been very little development of virtual reality as a modality for obesity and diabetes studies. Progress in this field will require multidisciplinary cooperation between technology, academia, and among researchers in the diverse fields of biomedical sciences, behavioral sciences, pedagogical disciplines, and computer sciences.