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Avatar Influence


If you saw a digital image of yourself running on a virtual treadmill, would you feel like going to the gym? Probably so, according to a Stanford study showing that personalized avatars can motivate people to exercise and eat right.

Moreover, you are more likely to imitate the behavior of an avatar in real life if it looks like you, said Jesse Fox, a doctoral candidate in the Communication Department and a researcher at the Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab. In her study, she used digital photographs of participants to create personalized avatar bodies, a service some game companies offer today.

To escape to the virtual realm, you simply slip on a helmet with screens attached in front of the eyes. You are instantly immersed in a digital room and fully surrounded by a new world, as if you are inside a video game. Cameras in the lab track an infrared light on your helmet so that images on the screen move with your head.

In Fox's first test, some participants put on the helmet and saw their avatar running on a treadmill. Others saw themselves loitering in the virtual room or saw a running avatar they didn't recognize.

Fox contacted participants a day after the study and found that the people who saw their own avatar running were more likely to exercise (after they left the lab) than the people who saw someone else running or saw themselves just hanging out in the virtual room. In fact, those who watched themselves running were motivated to exercise, on average, a full hour more than the others. They ran, played soccer or worked out at the gym.

"They had imitated their avatar's behavior," Fox said.

In another test, some participants ran in place while watching their avatars become thinner, other participants stood still and watched their avatars become heavier, and others saw an unfamiliar avatar either slim or fatten. Participants who had witnessed their own avatar change " whether becoming thinner or heavier " exercised significantly more than those who had seen an unfamiliar avatar.

Seeing their face on an avatar was the driving factor. "If they saw a person they didn't know, they weren't motivated to exercise. But if they saw themselves, they exercised significantly more," she said.

Participants also responded to personalized avatars whose bodies slimmed as they ate carrots or grew heavier as they ate candy. Male participants mimicked the avatar and ate more candy, but because of the gender differences associated with eating, female participants ate less candy.

Fox thinks personalized avatars could be used to motivate healthy behavior. For example, someone on a long-term weight loss schedule could pull out his or her cell phone and track progress by watching the avatar body slim down onscreen.

-- Stanford News Service.


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