Healthier choices with a virtual supermarket

How do people make choices in the supermarket? And how can you help them to select healthier products? To investigate this process, UMC Utrecht and the University of Amsterdam (UvA) developed the virtual supermarket: a fully immersive environment for participants. On 4 October, this innovative research tool will be presented at the Innovation Expo in Rotterdam.

Insight into brain mechanisms and diet choices

Development of the virtual supermarket began at UMC Utrecht with an interactive virtual environment in which people could shop from behind their computers. In addition to this interactive environment, a version was developed for neuroimaging research to visualise which brain mechanisms are influenced by health-related advertisements and influence diet choices.

A visit to the supermarket wearing a virtual reality headset

At the UvA, the virtual supermarket was further developed to create an implementation where participants with virtual reality headsets and controllers can physically move through a virtual supermarket and pick up products. This virtual supermarket is used to study the effects of packaging, prices (subsidies and tax) and ‘nudges’ (e.g. text boxes on packaging, arrows and social norm messages) on diet choices

How can virtual reality help?

Virtual reality gives its users the actual feeling that they are physically present in the virtual environment rather than in the physical environment where they really are at the time. Due to this strong feeling of being present in the virtual world, expectations are – and there is also strong evidence in this direction – that people will display similar behaviour to when they are in a real supermarket, also regarding purchases. Consequently, the technology has huge potential as a method to study buying behaviour. The knowledge that this technique yields on the effectiveness of influencing strategies can be applied directly in a real supermarket. This innovative scientific measuring method can thus contribute to encouraging healthy eating behaviour.

Research context

Developing a virtual supermarket began within the VIRTUE project (‘Developing a realistic fMRI-compatible VIRTUal food choice Environment to test the effectiveness and neural underpinnings of healthy eating interventions’). VIRTUE is funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). Further development took place in curiosity-driven research projects and a project funded by the Research Priority Area Communication at the University of Amsterdam.

About Innovation Expo Rotterdam

The Innovation Expo is an event organised every two years by the Dutch government (the following ministries were involved: Infrastructure and Water Management; Economic Affairs and Climate Policy; Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality; the Interior and Kingdom Relations; and Foreign Affairs). At the Innovation Expo, Dutch scientific innovations are presented to the public.
Innovation Expo website

Project progress

The virtual supermarket will be further developed at Tilburg University, where the application developer Nynke van der Laan started work on 1 September 2018.

Further information

Published by  Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences