Penn State and University of South Australia find new uses for virtual reality 4

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Virtual reality is useful for gaming, training, designing and much more. Penn State and the University of South Australia are using it to advance energy and environmental knowledge, and simulate planned upgrades to roads and pedestrian areas

Quick read

➨ Penn State’s Center for Immersive Experiences is advancing energy and environmental knowledge via virtual reality
➨ A new research project from the University of South Australia will see planned upgrades to roads and pedestrian areas simulated using virtual reality in order to improve road safety for older people

The story

Virtual reality is proving to be a flexible immersive technology that serves a variety of use cases, as separate research at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) and the University of South Australia demonstrates.

Penn State’s Center for Immersive Experiences is advancing energy and environmental knowledge via virtual reality. 

Institutes of Energy and the Environment (IEE) associate director Erica Smithwick and her team are using the centre to work on a National Science Foundation-funded project called Visualizing Forest Futures that can immerse users in virtual reality-based forests in order to engage them more deeply in conversations about climate change and forest management.

Traditional landscape modelling is already used to simulate the effects of climate change on forests to produce landscape maps, but their usefulness is restricted to land managers and scientists.

The model used at Penn State is driven by forest management practices of the Menominee Nation of Northern Wisconsin and by the National Forest Service. Both groups are part of the project’s research team. In addition to the forests of today, the simulation also offers climate change scenarios of what future forests could look like.

In Visualizing Forest Futures, a user is able to visit a forest simulation under current conditions as well as a possible future under climate change

Smithwick and her team correlated the forest data in the model and transferred it to a virtual reality environment. One result of the project is a game where the player, taking on the role of a journalist, is sent to examine how events such as rain and new development projects might affect the nearby ecosystem.

Jessica Myrick, an IEE researcher and associate professor of media studies in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State, worked on a project involving the virtual reality game.

She said: “Alex’s team designed the experience to look like the Shale Hills Critical Zone (CZ) Observatory. If you were to literally walk around Shale Hills, you would not necessarily see the interaction of all the different Earth systems involved.”

The CZO simulation allows users to see the impact of rain above and below ground

The game is interactive, so players can see how water flows through soil and how water levels affect plants, air and humans in and at different ways and times.

Myrick said: “VR allows us to literally lift out sections of the ground and give people a view of what, during our normal lives, is all invisible below our feet.”

“If seeing is believing, then VR allows us to help people not only learn about the Critical Zone but also more fully grasp its importance to our life.”

Myrick believes that virtual reality experiences can make others more curious about earth science and the environment.

She said: “If we can generate curiosity, then we don’t have to depend on feeding people a steady diet of VR games for them to learn. Instead, we know that curiosity motivates people to continue learning after the initial curiosity-evoking experience, and hopefully being curious can help generate additional knowledge gain and policy interest in the future.”

‘City planners can address any road safety issues well before construction begins’

A new research project from the University of South Australia, meanwhile, will see planned upgrades to roads and pedestrian areas simulated using virtual reality in order to improve road safety for older people.

Australia’s Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications has awarded a grant to an interdisciplinary team at the University of South Australia to pursue the three-year project.

They will use innovative user experience methods including eye tracking and locomotion techniques, getting participants to verbalise their thoughts, and wearable biosensors to track physiological indicators of stress such as heart rate, skin conductance response and movement.

Construction management specialist Dr Jun Ahn, one of three researchers on the project, said: “Through this project we will create a virtual environment to simulate the road environment. We can easily change that virtual model to test the impact that a range of factors, such as intersection designs, crossing widths and traffic signals, have on road safety.”

“The project will focus on the needs of older people, who may, for example, have impaired vision or hearing, need a walking aid or require longer to cross the road than young people.”

The research team, which also includes virtual reality expert Dr Gun Lee and psychology specialist Dr Ancret Szpak, will compare vulnerable pedestrians’ experiences in real environments with experiences captured in virtual environments.

Ahn said: “Our ultimate ambition is for councils to be able to use this technology to test road designs virtually with vulnerable pedestrians, while still in the planning stages.”

“This means city planners can get an idea of how safe and usable the built environment will be and address any road safety issues well before construction begins.”

“By making roads safer and decreasing the likelihood of accidents, we hope to see more older people taking a stroll.”

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Images: Pennsylvania State University