Avatars in the Treatment of Obesity

New project using virtual reality methods to help obese patients

Obesity – the condition of having a high amount of excess body fat – is a widespread medical problem that can affect not only one’s physical health, but also one’s social life and mental health. Professor Dr. Mario Botsch and his team at Bielefeld University’s Cluster of Excellence CITEC are working on potential new therapies for obesity together with a research group at the Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg headed by Dr. Marc Erich Latoschik and Junior Professor Dr. Carolin Wienrich. Additional project partners include research groups from the Technical University of Munich, the University of Applied Sciences for Engineering and Economics in Berlin, and the University of Applied Science Gera, as well as industry partners brainboost GmbH und The Captury GmbH. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is funding the ViTraS project with 2.5 million Euros over the next three years. The name ViTraS stands for “Virtual Reality Therapy by Stimulation of Modulated Body Perception.”

"Obesity has various causes such as lifestyle habits, socio-cultural, psychological, or genetic factors," says Latoschik who heads the JMU Chair for Human-Computer Interaction. "So far, therapeutic approaches have focused on dietary regimes, lifestyle changes or bariatric surgery to reduce the size of the stomach. The psychological causes and consequences are often neglected."
Many people suffering from obesity have a distorted perception of their own body,  which complicates therapy. Major changes wrought by obesity in the body, e.g., in the internal organs, are hard to detect. Moreover, the physical appearance of the body plays an important role in almost all social situations. Obese people tend to avoid social encounters, which then has a negative impact on their well-being. And this is where the research teams want to take action.
Conveying a realistic body image

"In a first step, we want patients to get a realistic image of their own body, not one that is externally influenced and judgmental," Wienrich explains. She is a junior professor at JMU. "To achieve this, we create an exact virtual replica of a person, a so-called avatar.”

To make this avatar as realistic as possible, patients are photographed by 120 cameras from different angles. Based on these images, Professor Dr. Mario Botsch and his team at Bielefeld University compose a life-like replica of the body that patients can subsequently control in the virtual space.

Once the patients' avatars have been brought to life in the virtual world, different therapeutic approaches can then be implemented. “What makes our research project unique is that we are the first to use realistic personalized avatars in virtual reality to deal with obesity,” says Mario Botsch, who heads the “Computer Graphics and Geometry Processing” research group, which is part of both the Faculty of Technology and the Cluster of Excellence CITEC.

 “We then have different possibilities open to us, such as customizing the avatar however we want,” says Botsch. “In the virtual space, we can for instance retrospectively depict gradual weight gain over many years. We can also visualize the potential results of losing weight with a successful therapeutic approach.”

Therapy options in the virtual space

The virtual world opens up essentially unlimited freedom when it comes to applications and experiences. "Detached from the real body, people can choose an avatar of their liking and exchange experiences with other people worldwide in virtual group therapy. Body images that are otherwise perceived as negative are secondary here," Wienrich adds.

The ViTraS project combines elements of interactive computer graphics, cognitive research and computer science. It also includes gamification, which refers to the application of typical elements from computer games. "We are mainly interested in questions of game mechanics and participant motivation. This makes the project interesting for students as well," says Latoschik. Students in these fields of study can participate in scientific work as research assistants or interns.

The German Institute for Virtual Reality (DIVR) already honoured the ViTraS concept shortly after the project launch. ViTraS won a DIVR Science Award in the Best-Impact category.

More Information:
The research project: http://hci.uni-wuerzburg.de/projects/vitras
DIVR Science Awards 2019: https://www.divr.de/divr-award-2019-ein-rueckblick

Prof. Dr. Mario Botsch, Universität Bielefeld
Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC)
Telephone: 0049 521 106-12146
E-Mail: botsch@techfak.uni-bielefeld.de