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National Science Foundation Awards $500,000 for Study of Virtual Reality for Preventing Alcohol Abuse on College Campuses

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The National Science Foundation has awarded a three-year $500,000 grant to study how virtual reality simulations can assist in preventing alcohol abuse among college students.

The grant is being shared by Dr. Jennifer Epstein, assistant research professor in the Department of Public Health at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Dr. Charles Hughes, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Central Florida.

Researchers will control the actions of virtual characters throughout each scenario, interacting with the students one-on-one and in real time.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's Task Force on College Drinking, the consequences of excessive and underage drinking affect the large majority of college campuses, college communities and college students, whether they choose to drink or not. The adverse events include deaths from alcohol-related unintentional injuries (including motor vehicle crashes), assaults, sexual abuse, unsafe sex, academic problems and a host of other health problems.

"The transition to the first year of college, in particular, is a critical age and life period when health and well-being are put to the test by the convergence of opportunity and peer pressure to drink heavily," Dr. Epstein says.

As part of the research study, college students will be invited to take part in immersive, virtual reality simulations of scenarios that involve peer pressure situations commonly faced by college freshmen. Researchers will control the actions of virtual characters throughout each scenario, interacting with the student one-on-one and in real time.

"This virtual reality simulation approach allows us to engage students, while giving us flexibility in the appearance and traits of the characters and choices for the interactive scenes," Dr. Epstein says.

In designing the study, Dr. Epstein will provide expertise on alcohol prevention while Dr. Hughes and his team will create virtual worlds and characters to make the virtual role playing come alive.

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