Q&A: Can virtual reality help people eat a healthier diet?

Q: To study eating, don’t you need to use real food at some point?

Long: Absolutely, and our recent work is a testament to that. In a recent study, we created a restaurant in a mixed-reality environment where participants can see and interact with real food, as their actual hands and the meal in front of them are seamlessly integrated into the virtual space. This integration creates a sense of presence or “being there” by making the virtual restaurant feel as if it were a genuine restaurant environment.

That research demonstrated that people could comfortably interact with a virtual environment and eat real food. There are a lot of important questions that we can answer using virtual food, but being able to immerse participants in a mixed-reality restaurant while they consume real food allows researchers to answer a different set of research questions.

Q: Do people behave the same in a virtual restaurant as they do in a real restaurant?

Long: That is an important question, and more research is needed, but our first attempt to answer this question suggests that people do.

Other research at Penn State and elsewhere has demonstrated that the “portion-size effect” is a robust phenomenon. This just means that people tend to eat more food when they are served more food. This is a visual phenomenon where we struggle to accurately estimate food volumes, so we do not notice that a portion is larger; it is just a portion to us.

In a recent study, which is available online now and will be published in the December issue of Appetite, we demonstrated that the portion-size effect occurs in a virtual-reality buffet restaurant where everything is completely virtual — even the food — in a way that is very similar to what we see in laboratories and in real life. We found that people’s behavior in virtual environments mirrors their behavior in the real world.

Masterson: We have demonstrated that these virtual environments are usable and that they accurately reflect human eating behavior, at least in terms of responses to portion size. But we are just scratching the surface of what this technology can do.

In the future we will be able to use VR to accurately and easily recreate a variety of eating environments from people’s actual lives. This will continue to improve our understanding of people’s personal eating behaviors under a variety of conditions. It also gives us new opportunities to provide personalized coaching and feedback.

Q: Much of the work in creating a VR restaurant is outside the realm of nutritional sciences. How are you getting the most out of this technology?

Masterson: We have a lot of fantastic collaborators! At Penn State, researchers across every college have built collaborations to use VR in research through the Center for Immersive Experiences. Our affiliation with the center has enabled us to collaborate with architects, biostatisticians, computer scientists, artists, engineers and others to build and operate our virtual buffet. This, in turn, lets us answer questions about how to promote healthy eating.

I would like to thank the Penn State Social Science Research Institute for funding this project. Their funding is another example of the institutional support at Penn State for this kind of interdisciplinary research.

Working on VR is very exciting. John and I are studying eating behavior, but other Penn Staters are using VR to answer questions and solve problems in surgery, engineering and many other fields. It is important to be in the right place, and Penn State is definitely the right place for this work.

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