Christopher Scaffidi of Oregon State University works with Seth Toda, a 22-year-old computer science student, on an OSU project to see if virtual reality can help teach healthy habits to real world teenagers.  Scaffidi will help select mobile sensors to be worn by students in the study. (Andy Cripe/ Mid-Valley Health)

Andy Cripe

Study will test how players’ lifestyles reflect the habits of their online avatars

Jon Dorbolo’s avatar wears a wizard’s black robe.

His silver hair flows past his shoulders. He can fly.

Avatars are virtual characters, usually human-like, controlled by users in a videogame or a virtual world such as Second Life.

Researchers at Oregon State University are hoping to use avatars to teach healthy habits to a seemingly healthy group — high school soccer players.

Research has found that what a person does with her virtual character affects her real-world behavior, said Dorbolo, associate director of Technology Across the Curriculum, an Oregon State program that promotes use of technology at OSU.

“People have trained their avatars to quit smoking,” he said. “And the people who do that quit smoking faster and longer than people who don’t do that.”

OSU received almost $5 million from the United States Department of Agriculture for the study; the avatar project, which is funded by the grant and which goes by the official name “Wave Ripples for Change,” is meant to prevent obesity among active youths using a mixture of virtual and real-world learning.

Part of the inspiration for the virtual-reality project came from the movies, in particular, the movie “Avatar,” which inspired OSU researcher Siew Sun Wong to study how these virtual characters influenced human action. Wong is a project director along with Melinda Manore, a researcher in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

In the movie “Avatar,” the protagonist uses an avatar to enter the world of Pandora, where he learns to love nature through interactions with native people.

“He got a glimpse of how life could be better. He brought that back; he transformed that back to his real life,” Wong said. “That’s my hope for this project. The true inspiration behind this project was to inspire our teens by providing such a positive environment for them to transform it back to real life.”

A teachable moment

The project targets teenage soccer players for two reasons. First, as they leave high school, their activity levels tend to drop. Wong hopes to “capture that teachable moment” when the students are still active to head off potentially bad habits later in life.

Second, the active teenagers may be fit, but still might not be eating the right foods. Wong compares it to fueling a sports car, which needs premium gas to have the highest possible performance.

Recruits for the study will come from Marion, Polk, Yamhill, Washington and Clackamas counties. (Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties were chosen because they had 4-H soccer programs, and the program expanded to Washington and Clackamas counties because of their proximity to the other counties.)

The study will last five years. The soccer players will participate for two years. Before they get involved with the project, additional time will be required to develop the tools to be used in the study. The remainder of the time will be spent on data exploration and sharing results.

Dorbolo’s avatar lives in a world called Second Life. In Second Life, avatars can earn currency, purchase goods and even adopt a virtual dog they can command to sit, stand or guard.

The students in the OSU project likely will be using a platform called OpenSim, which is almost identical to Second Life — but it gives more control to the researchers, an important factor for the safety of the teenage subjects.

Students who log into the virtual world will wear mobile devices that automatically log information about their daily exercise and food intake. Part of the idea is to see if students with active avatars actually turn out to be more active in the real world.

Christopher Scaffidi is an OSU computer science engineer working on the project. Scaffidi’s team will help to select the sensors that best fit the needs of the students. It can be a tricky business: The devices must be compatible with the students’ activities. Information from the wearable sensors will be used to shape the virtual reality in which the students’ avatars live.

The work that Scaffidi and members of his team are putting in on the sensors won’t be limited to the avatar project: The hope is that the software and other tools developed for the project will be useful to other researchers working on different projects.

Meanwhile, in the virtual world, Dorbolo and other researchers will track the activities of the participants and their avatars.

So, for example, if participants feed their avatars too much, the avatars will get fat, explained researcher Yu Meng, a Ph.D. candidate involved with the study.

Good behavior in the virtual world will be rewarded with currency that can be spent in the virtual world: For example, Dorbolo used currency earned in Second Life to give his avatar the ability to fly. If the students make healthy choices in their virtual world, they’ll earn virtual currency.

Emphasizing the basics

OSU’s current Second Life project is Beaver Island, a true virtual campus. Beaver Island is not meant to mirror OSU exactly, but at least one of the buildings in the platform — the Memorial Union — is strikingly similar to its real-world counterpart.

For the project, students’ avatars will exist in a virtual world on OpenSim that will be similar to Beaver Island.

The experience emphasizes the basics: teaching families healthy lifestyles by focusing on gardening, cooking, menu planning, grocery shopping, food safety and menu planning, Wong said.

The skills may seem common-sense. But Wong said many students seem to be losing them and so the program includes intersections between the virtual and real worlds. For example, part of the project will take students physically into grocery stores.

“This project is going to focus on having our participants do some of the assignment in the real world and then report back in the virtual world,” Wong said. “It’s integrated.”

Teenagers will pick a few products and compare unit prices and nutritional facts to come up with inexpensive but nutritious meals on a budget.

“It’s the same for food preservation. If we have a garden and all of a sudden we have buckets and buckets of tomatoes, what do you do?” Wong said. “They need to learn how to can those or at least freeze them or do some other food preservation in a safe way.”

If virtual learning helps the teenagers learn better health habits, it also could help students with other skills, such as gardening.

“When they actually get into the real garden, they look a lot smarter and confident,” Wong said. “We want to boost their confidence that way and remove as much embarrassment as possible.”

Meanwhile, in the virtual world, students will encounter scenarios geared to reinforce their learning.

“For example, when they do something good, they will get some really good reward or praises,” Wong said. “If they’re in trouble, they get immediate help, which is very supportive.”

That way, “failures become more like lessons,” Wong said.

McKinley Smith, a student at OSU, is working this summer as an intern at the Corvallis Gazette-Times.


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