Education and intervention: New training lab uses virtual reality to dissuade teens from smoking

Virtual reality has a wide variety of uses, ranging from augmenting entertainment experiences to helping pilots train for actual flight. Now, research scientists from the Yale Center for Health & Learning Games are working towards newer, more noble applications for this technology. One of these is smokeSCREEN VR, the virtual reality adaptation of PlayForward: smokeSCREEN, a narrative-based video game about tobacco product usage. Though instead of focusing solely on tobacco products as a whole, smokeSCREEN VR will place special emphasis on e-cigarettes.

As reported by, the play4REAL lab will be creating this updated adaptation with the assistance of PreviewLabs and the support of Occulus. Through this, the research scientists hope to deliver an immersive and informative experience to the youth on the dangers of e-cigarette usage. On top of tobacco product education, the researchers also aim to use smokeSCREEN VR as a means of gathering data on the potential of virtual reality to influence health behavior.

In fact, the researchers behind a 2012 study found that virtual reality could serve as a highly effective tool in smoking cessation, especially when combined with nicotine replacement therapy. In addition to smoking less cigarettes, the study participants who underwent both nicotine replacement therapy and virtual reality skills training (wherein they were placed in social scenarios that would normally trigger smoking) reported feeling fewer cravings for cigarettes during the study. The long-term effects have been just as promising: not only did these same participants smoke fewer cigarettes, they were also more confident in their ability to resist the urge to smoke.

“We will leverage [virtual reality] technology to create a more realistic simulation of peer pressure and situational decision making. With [virtual reality], as a player, you get much more of a point-of-view experience. You actually feel like you’re in the environment,” said Kimberly Hieftje, lab director of play4REAL. (Related: Shocking Study: E-Cigarette Vapor Kills 85 % of the Cells in Your Mouth.)

She added added: “We are asking ourselves what we can do to use VR to enhance the feeling of social pressure in a scenario involving e-cigarette use. Could we change the volume of the background noise? Could we simulate your heart pounding?”

To that end, Hieftje and her colleagues have set up shop at one of the facilities under the Yale Center for Health & Learning Games. Half of the walls in the lab will be painted green so that the team can make use of green screen technology. This is to make it so a virtual reality session can be viewed by the person wearing the headset and, if present, their companions. “For behavioral intervention, we know there’s also value in watching peers engage in risky situations, so we wanted to make it possible for other adolescents to watch their peers engage in our simulation,” explained Hieftje.

Apart from e-cigarettes and smoking, the researchers intend on expanding their reach into similar risks that affect the youth. Speaking in a press release, Hieftje stated that she and her team would “love” to develop and release virtual reality programs that can decrease alcohol abuse, drug usage, and dangerous sexual behaviors.

Currently, there is no official release date for smokeSCREEN VR just yet. Though Hieftje has said that it will be available at an online store so that adolescents and players from all over the world can give the game a spin. Adding to this, the team also hopes that these people will benefit from their interventions.

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