Home » VR-REU 2022 » Virtual Reality and Public Health Project: Nutrition Education – Professor Margrethe Horlyck-Romanovsky

Virtual Reality and Public Health Project: Nutrition Education – Professor Margrethe Horlyck-Romanovsky

Talia Attar, Cornell University

Week One:

We kicked off the VR-REU 2022 program on Monday and convened in the Hunter College Computer Science Department, Professor Wole, the other participants, and I finally getting to meet and introduce ourselves to each other. Via a Meet-and-Greet style meeting, the other participants and I had the honor to hear the program mentors explain a bit about their work and their vision for integrating Virtual Reality into what they do. In Professor Wole’s VR/AR/MR summer class this week, we learned about hardware and software, 3D geometry, and the basics of writing a research paper using LaTex – a very useful introduction into a key component of doing research. Finally, as a group, we rounded out the week with an introduction to Paraview, using disk data to explore the breadth of Paraview’s capacities.

In regards to my research project, I met with my mentor, Professor Margrethe Horlyck-Romanovsky, and created a concrete concept for the project. After telling me about her research and the information gaps we currently face in generating a complete understanding of how people interact with their food systems, my mentor and I discussed how Virtual Reality could be used to study this gap. We formalized the necessary features of the Virtual Reality application and planned what the related study may look like. Heading into next week, I am excited to dive deeper into learning Unity and building out my project!

Week Two:

I entered Week Two excited to kick my project development into high gear. With the help of my Professor Margrethe and Dr. Wole, I was able enhance the specifications for my Virtual Reality simulation and create a more detailed vision. I began implementing the simulation, a process that was slow at first as I familiarized myself with the XR features of Unity. However, as the week progressed, I grew more comfortable with this type of development and made headway on the first scene in my project – a city block. 

In addition to working on the simulation, I also spent a significant amount of time considering aspects of the study itself. Professor Margrethe, Dr. Wole, and I discussed details from recruiting participants to analyzing produced results, allowing the study to come into clearer view. I was also fortunate to receive valuable and detailed advice around literature reviewing and other aspects of research papers from Professor Margrethe.

The REU members and I ended the week as a group, and Dr. Wole taught us about using Tableau for data visualization. The sample dashboard I created through his tutorial can be found here.

Week Three:

Week three marked an exciting point in the program as I was able to begin deploying my simulation to the Meta Quest 2 VR headset. This was the first time I had gotten to wear a VR headset outside of the demo last week, and it was informative to be able to explore a variety of simulations for an extended period of time. The highlight was certainly successfully building my Unity project directly on to the headset. In regards to the simulation itself, I began a different approach to creating my 3D scene compared to last week in an attempt to enhance the level of detail present. I also began the interactive level of the project by coding the XR rig to follow a fixed, controlled path around the simulation.

In addition to work on my personal study, I joined the other participants in learning a new visualization tool: VMD.

Week Four:

This week I saw the largest progress in my Virtual Reality development process to date. With the help of some carefully selected asset packages from the Unity store, I was finally able to get over the hump of world building and begin implementing more of the user interactions. I successfully completed a draft of the first layer of the world: the city-level view with three food sources. The user is taken on a fixed path walk around the block, with the freedom to move their head to look around. At the end of this walk, a pop-up appears for the user to select where they would like to enter with their laser pointer, and then they are taken on another fixed path walk to the food vendor of their choosing. Upon arriving, the following scene – interior of the store – loads. Developing the interactive UI for this selection step of the process was the largest technical challenge I faced to date, as the Unity UI support was developed for a 2D setting. However, with the help of many (many) YouTube videos and other online resources, I was able to use the Oculus Integration package to adapt the UI features effectively to Virtual Reality. 


Next week will entail continuing the development flow to build out the next layer of the simulation.

Week Five:

During Week Five, I picked up right where I left off in my last blog post: implementing the “interior” layer of the simulation. This entailed crafting three new scenes and mini “worlds” to represent the green grocer, the supermarket, and the fast food restaurant. Professor Margrethe and I discussed the appropriate foods and information to present in each food source and ended up with a carefully crafted list of what is included. The two main tasks I faced in development were figuring out how to appropriately represent the relevant foods and constructing a logical and clear interface for the user to interact with the food options to simulate a shopping experience. The latter task was challenging in terms of both design and actual implementation, but I ended the week with a solid vision and corresponding code to do so. In Week Six, I will be finishing applying the interactive layer throughout all three food sources and generally cleaning up any loose ends within the simulation. 

The other program participants and I ended the week with a fun field trip to the CUNY Advanced Science Research Center and got to see applications of virtual reality as well as many other interesting and complex ongoing research projects!

Week Six:

Week Six entailed the final push of development of the simulation. One main addition that occurred during this week was the creation of a text file log that records statistics around the users interactions. This will be incredibly useful in gathering detailed results around users behavior within the simulation. Another important development from this week was that many new food items were added as possible options to expand the breadth of choices and potential purchases the user might make. Finally, I added components to provide direction and explanation to the user to enhance ease of use. With these exciting developments, finally running the study with participants using the simulation next week feels promising!

The images below are screenshots taken directly from deployment of the simulation on the Oculus Quest 2. They show the user purchasing interface in two of the food businesses.



Week Seven:

This week was very exciting because I finally ran the study using the simulation! The week began with final preparations for running the study that included constructing the survey for people to fill out after the VR experience and addressing any lingering bugs in the simulation. Throughout the week, I was able to recruit 12 participants and administer the VR simulation and survey to each. It was an incredibly rewarding experience to see the outcome of my UNITY development process be put to use.

I concluded the week by beginning to analyze the results found and start writing them up to the final research paper. Looking forward to next week, the final week of the program, I will be completing constructing the relevant results and writing my paper as well as preparing for the final presentation!

Week Eight:

This week marked the final week of the REU program. I spent the bulk of the week completing the short paper to submit to the VRST 2022 conference taking place in Tsukuba, Japan this fall. A large portion of this process was analyzing the results of the study. The simulation and study yielded data around a variety of different factors, such as the decision outcomes of the simulation and the usability score measured from a system usability questionnaire component of the survey. I combined different aspects of the data to generate several key findings around behavioral and decision-making patterns in the simulation. However, the most critical part of this preliminary study was that, mainly supported by the high usability and presence scores, virtual reality shows promise as a tool for studying individual food consumer behavior in a multilevel food environment, and the study findings warrant further research into this application.

The program concluded with a wonderful day of presentations, and I was fortunate to hear about the work done by my fellow REU participants throughout the summer.

Thank you to Dr. Wole for facilitating this program and to my mentor, Dr. Margrethe Horlyck-Romanovsky, for her endless support throughout this process.

Final Report was submitted and accepted as a 2-pages paper (poster presentation) at VRST 2022:
Talia Attar, Oyewole Oyekoya, and Margrethe F. Horlyck-Romanovsky. 2022. Using Virtual Reality Food Environments to Study Individual Food Consumer Behavior in an Urban Food Environment. In 28th ACM Symposium on Virtual Reality Software and Technology (VRST ’22), November 29-December 1, 2022, Tsukuba, Japan. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 2 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3562939.3565685 – pdf

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