NeuroShop Virtual Supermarket

Within the VIRTUE project, we have developed a virtual supermarket which we share (free) with the research community. 

A major obstacle in investigating how healthy eating interventions impact on the neural mechanisms underlying food choices is the lack of realistic neuroimaging paradigms. Aside from situational factors (lying in a supine position, noise), functional MRI tasks are generally highly simplified and therefore very different from the real-life food choice environment. Health interventions will ultimately have to function effectively in busy, complex real-life settings and therefore it is important to know how such interventions affect brain responses in a realistic setting. To this end, we have developed a virtual supermarket environment (The NeuroShop scan paradigm) for neuroimaging research. Virtual reality has a major potential for use in neuroimaging research: it has been shown that subjects quickly feel ‘embedded’, such that the actual situation (lying in an MRI scanner) is suppressed in favor of the virtual situation (walking in the supermarket).

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The first version of the NeuroShop scan paradigm has currently been finished and consists of two separate implementations of virtual reality, namely an immersive supermarket environment (the NeuroShop environment) and a choice task (the NeuroShop fMRI task). During the first phase of the MRI scanning paradigm, subjects walk around real-time in the NeuroShop Environment in order to become embedded in the virtual supermarket experience. In the current first version of the NeuroShop paradigm, they are viewing a screen and navigate through the environment by using mouse and keyboard or a joystick. It was developed in the free and open source 3D creation suite Blender. Participants can navigate in the supermarket by using the keyboard and mouse and select products by clicking them. The clicked product then disappears from the shelf and the productname is logged in a text file. The NeuroShop was designed to resemble a small supermarket of a Dutch market leader. We developed a script with which the shelves of the supermarket can be filled quickly and easily, such that individuals with limited knowledge of Blender can also adapt the products on the shelves of the NeuroShop. During the second phase, the functional MRI task, subjects are shown time-locked rendered movie clips of walking from one shelf to another, followed by choice screens.

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We performed a study with 29 subjects to investigate the level of presence of the NeuroShop environment. On all subscales (Involvement: M = 3.4, Sensory fidelity: M = 5.0, Adaptation: M = 5.4, and Interface quality: M = 5.5) of the Presence questionnaire (Wittmer et al., 2005) the NeuroShop environment scored higher or similar as other virtual supermarkets that are used in the research field (e.g, Waterlander et al., 2009).

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The NeuroShop research tools open up a wealth of research and development opportunities: it can be used for brain-based fine-tuning of existing health interventions to specific target groups and development of new interventions. The NeuroShop research tools can be used to investigate the effects of interventions and of factors involved in food choice on the neural mechanisms of food choice, such as packaging, in-store advertisements, discounts, pricing, etcetera. To facilitate this, we freely distribute the NeuroShop with a permissive license. 

Please contact Nynke van der Laan if you are interested in using either the NeuroShop virtual environment or the NeuroShop fMRI task. 

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Research from the Nutritional Neuroscience Lab was funded by grants from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7)

The Nutritional Neuroscience Lab is affiliated with the Image Sciences Institute of the University Medical Center Utrecht, The Netherlands.