Fascination with the blockbuster 3-D film "Avatar" has fans tuning into real-world research indicating that virtual selves can inspire people to lead better lives.
Since the release of the film, interest has surged in a Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab study showing that avatars, animated versions of people, act as powerful role models.
"It is getting so hot right now," study author Jesse Fox told AFP on Thursday. "James Camerons's 'Avatar' movie is out so our website hits have just spiked."
People immersed in virtual worlds where animated characters mirroring their true looks were shown running were more likely to play sports, run, or work out at a gym in the following 24 hours, according to the study.
Subjects that got to see their avatars loitering about were prone to imitate that behavior in the real world, the research showed.
The key to the study was using pictures of subjects to make avatars appear as much like them as possible, according to Fox.
"The more the model looks like you, the stronger the effects will be and the more likely you are to imitate it," said the researcher, who is working on a doctorate at Stanford.
Study participants wore specially designed helmets with view screens that gave them the illusion of being in a room with an animated version of themselves.
"If they saw a person they didn't know, they weren't motivated to exercise. But if they saw themselves, they exercised significantly more," Fox said.
Men that saw their avatars grow thinner by snacking on carrots toward healthier eating, while those that watched their virtual selves gorge on candy hankered for sweet treats.
Paralleling behavior in the real world, women that saw avatars "chow down" tended to be dissuaded from eating while men ate more, according to Fox.
People were much less inclined to imitate "virtual others."
"To some extent there is a mental meld that occurs - people seeing themselves in the avatar and taking a part of the avatar away with them," Fox said. "It creates an instant bond that taps into something unconscious."
Technology can be used to create virtual behavior models for people, according to the researcher, who worried about how this will play out as videogames increasingly let people personalize on-screen characters.
"If all it takes is five minutes of exposure in an immersive virtual world to one character, we really have to ask ourselves about exposures and interactions in videogames like 'Grand Theft Auto'," Fox said.
The videogame features scantily clad women and players get options to beat, rob, or kill prostitutes.
Protagonists in role-playing adventure videogames, however, are often heroes defying fearsome odds for a greater good such as saving the world.
Fox's research was backed by a grant from the US National Science Foundation and the results were first published last year.
Despite the surge in interest "Avatar" has sparked in her research, Fox admitted she hasn't seen the film.
"I have a line between my work and my play," Fox said. "Seeing the movie is on my list of things to do when my dissertation is done."