Virtual Clinical Trials

The University of Houston's Texas Obesity Research Center (TORC) has jumped into the virtual world by launching an International Health Challenge to take place in the land of Second Life.

The University of Houston’s Texas Obesity Research Center (TORC) has jumped into the virtual world by launching an International Health Challenge to take place in the land of Second Life. Its aim is to help promote healthy eating habits and exercise.

Opened to the public in 2003, Second Life now boasts millions of users, or residents, from around the world. Recognizing that the vast virtual world is largely untapped when it comes to clinical trials and health studies, TORC has set up an International Health Challenge that is currently recruiting 500 participants internationally.

The Challenge offers avatars, or the computer representations of people, to earn Lindens, the currency of Second Life, for participating in various physical activities, such as walking on treadmills or riding bikes. Lindens can also be earned for engaging in healthy eating habits, such as trying new fruits and vegetables. The Challenge is accepting participants from Canada, Switzerland, Mexico, and the US to compete for “Challenge Points” received for healthy behaviors. (Materials are provided in English, Spanish, and French.) The country team with the most earned points will win the challenge. The underlying goal is to conduct obesity outreach and education in an entertaining and culturally popular way in a neutral environment. The virtual learning is meant to carry over to real life. The virtual environment is also meant to be a space where avatars can honestly share their experiences in a community without barriers.

Many other organizations and businesses have already stepped into Second Life to offer public platforms that expand their audience and for internal purposes to hold virtual meetings, construct product simulations, and offer employee training. Organizations doing so include H&R Block, IBM, Ohio University, and Coldwell Banker.

The project is sponsored by the University of Southern California’s Network Culture Project.