Disasters in virtual reality

Disasters in virtual reality

“The aim of the project is to research and develop an interactive computer simulator to train staff in reacting to disasters,” says Ebba Þóra Hvannberg, Professor of Computer Science, about a project intended to simplify training in reactions to transport accidents. Hvannberg says that many different kinds of accidents occur, for example in air transport where a large number of people may be at risk. Reactions to such incidents require emergency management where police, fire fighters, emergency call operators, hospitals, rescue units, and airports are involved. The purpose of the project is to reduce the cost of training these people to deal with such disasters; simplify their reactions, and make them more efficient by virtual reality training. The simulator makes it much simpler than before to arrange training because currently disaster-reaction training is very complex and requires extensive numbers of participants and a variety of facilities.

“The training that requires the largest number of people is when disasters are staged. For such training a narrative must be created, explaining what happened; what injuries are involved, what the weather is like etc. Though such training is very effective it is expensive because it requires detailed preparation and organization. Such training takes place every two to four years, but it would be preferable to have them more frequently. Therefore ways to simulate such scenarios in virtual reality have been sought. Naturally such systems have been developed, but taking into account progress in computer technology, for example in the gaming industry regarding graphics and AI, better simulators for disasters are being developed in our project,” says Hvannberg.

Multi-national cooperation
Hvannberg says that instead of positing certain narratives that have been decided beforehand, where the user chooses what to do in predictable places, the new simulator uses the methods of gaming in the progress of events in virtual reality. “Trainees can practice evaluating situations, analysing problems, making decisions and coordinating action in real time. I hope this large study will enable us to create a powerful simulator to train reactions to disasters in flight and train transport; more effective, cheaper and more accessible to users than current technology. A special interest for me is to better understand how new interactive technology can be utilized in training in virtual reality.”

The study is a multi-national venture of scientists from all over Europe, specialists with knowledge in the fields of modelling; user interface; systems analysis; gaming; simulation; cloud systems; security; decision theory, and user evaluation. Twelve universities, corporations and institutes participate in the project, sponsored by the Seventh EU Framework.

Hvannberg says that the University of Iceland’s part in the project is to research user need, i.e. to understand what action is taken at the reaction stage, who does what and how people cooperate. “We also look into the need for training. This data is then used to design the software for the simulator by using new interactive technology; for example speech, movement and tactility; taking into account users’ assessment of the practicality and utility of the simulator.”

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