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Workshop on Virtual Reality Technologies for Research and Education in Obesity and Diabetes

Virtual Reality (VR) technologies (human interaction with computer-simulated environments) have been developed for surgery, rehabilitation medicine, and behavioral medicine, and also might be useful in linking visual and other sensory aspects of food and exercise with the user’s internal cognitive and emotional states. This workshop will explore the research potential of VR technologies as tools for behavioral and neuroscience studies in diabetes and obesity, and the practical potential of VR technology in fostering more effective utilization of diabetes- and obesity-related nutrition and lifestyle information. The proceedings will be published in the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technologyexternal link


A significant portion of the US population has difficulty assimilating and implementing public health or therapeutic guidance on optimal diet and physical activity. Even if the person is willing to make behavioral changes, it is hard to navigate the environmental choices and opportunity cost issues that present themselves at the point of decision. This is the cause of failure for many approaches seeking to promote positive behavioral changes, which is of particular concern for individuals with obesity and diabetes.

Virtual Reality technology allows users to interact with computer-simulated environments, typically with computer displays or stereoscopic goggles, but also sometimes with tactile or other sensory feedbacks including taste and smell. (Note: a useful brief overview is found at: link). The visual presentations can be tailored to the user, along with therapeutic guidance to modify affective reactions and prepare the user for future “real-world” encounters. Virtual Reality applications are currently in development for a number of health- and medicine-related issues, notably rehabilitation medicine (e.g., stroke, Parkinson disease), behavioral medicine (phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism), and surgery (technical training, robotics, remote site treatment). However, except for small studies in clinical eating disorders (anorexia, binge eating), there has been almost no development of the field in relation to common issues of food intake and food choice among the broader population.

The public health infrastructure is being overwhelmed by problems related to over-eating and under-exercising. VR technology might prove a useful tool in bridging the gap between information (healthy population guidance or therapeutic lifestyle change guidance for obesity and diabetes) and sustainable behavior change. The technology could be used to complement motivational interviewing, assess emotional states of readiness for behavioral change, and help patients to grapple with their emotional reactions to food choices. The visual presentations could assist patients in adjusting distorted assessments of portion sizes, correcting unrealistic expectations of the rate of weight loss, and managing sensory experiences from behavior change (such as hunger or satiety from altered consumption patterns, or delayed muscle soreness from unaccustomed exercise). Virtual reality also could be used as part of patient visits to identify issues for patients in the therapeutic setting, to help guide and select educational materials and strategies and timelines.

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