'C6' virtual reality room ties in transportation research in multiple dimensions

Imagine being in a room with a 3D projection system and asked to make life and death decisions as a firefighter rushing into a burning building. Seems pretty neat, right? No, it’s not the latest video game. Instead, it’s the newest way researchers are studying the impacts of extreme conditions on the decision-making process.

Iowa State University (ISU) is home to the world’s highest resolution, fully immersive virtual reality environment room known as the “C6,” which opened in June 2000. The C6 is a cube (10 feet on each side) housed on the ISU campus. There are projected images that give the impression of being in another environment on each wall as well as the ceiling and floor. This highly immersive, highly visual, 3D system creates “virtual realities.”

Iowa State has used the C6 virtual reality simulator in a variety of ways, including as a control room for the military’s unmanned vehicles, a tool to plan for urban growth in a city, and also as a 3D teaching tool to show students the cells involved in photosynthesis. The C6 has been used by many departments across the ISU campus for many more research projects.

To help understand how the C6 virtual reality room can be used to evaluate the safety of transportation infrastructure, I spoke with Associate Professor of Occupational Safety, Dr. Nir Keren.

A conversation with Dr. Nir Keren

Can you tell me a little bit about the virtual reality research you do?

I’m interested in the interaction people have with their environment. How people interact with their environment in real-time is something almost impossible to study. You cannot talk to people while doing their job as a police officer or firefighter, for example. There is a psychological effect when registering your thought process after something extreme happens, which makes you consider the event and your responses differently than what actually happened. Alternatively, the C6 virtual reality simulator is a fully immersive environment that works by collecting information by observing people’s reactions to a situation in real-time.

What are the benefits of doing this?

There are many benefits to this. In our study, we studied novice and experienced firefighters in a C6 simulation to see whether their decision-making process changes at a certain stress threshold. Another benefit is that firefighters are not having to be exposed to a real hazard for this study to take place, which is vital, yet their responses are the same as if the hazards did exist. Also, this provides us with an opportunity to use decision-tracing technology real-time (i.e., see what decisions are made at what stress level) and look at the way fire fighters process information and make decisions while engaged in firefighting, which is something that has never been done before.

Virtual reality can have many forms. This simulation creates a full-scale model of the environment. If the person in the simulator is interacting with a car, it would have a full-scale car for the real effect. And the environment adopts itself to what the person does as well. For example, if a person takes one step forward, the ground and all stationary and dynamic objects move in that direction; if they step backwards, the environment stops moving. If they turn to the side, the environment moves in that direction.

Virtual reality puts people in an environment where they have to make a decision and make that decision quickly. Decisions in life or death situations can make them excel or create an environment where they can make inappropriate decisions. In the simulator, the researcher is measuring heart rate and blood pressure in combination with their decisions, which together can be measured to determine stress levels. Using this data, researchers can see where stress negatively affects decision making.

How long have you been doing this research?

I’ve been engaged in virtual reality research for the past seven to eight years. My areas of interest are occupational safety and stress. I am an associate professor at the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, which is home to the Occupational Safety program.

How can your latest research:involving novice and expert firefighters and their reactions:relate to a sector like transportation?

From a transportation perspective, we suggest creating a simulation that mimics accident-prone areas for drivers. There has been quite a bit of research on either realistic driving behaviors or driving patterns, but it’s been difficult to mix the two. It is hard to understand how to create all the components to mimic a realistic driving situation. It is vital to do so, though, to see why certain actions occur.

With this type of simulation, we’d be able to visualize and better understand driver situations and resulting actions while looking specifically at roadway infrastructure. Eventually we could understand the components of an area that makes it more accident-prone than others, and then take action to abate those conditions.

On the design side, we believe that the C6 simulator can also be used to look at a proposed infrastructure plan in 3D, making it more effective for designers and engineers. By looking at a 3D design instead of a design on a computer, the designer can easily change things and more easily see if there are issues in advance. The virtual environment provides us with an opportunity to simulate movements in space and time for drivers and designers.

What do you think is the biggest contribution your research has for helping people?

Our biggest contribution is our ability to see if we can identify the human factors in driving that are different from one setting to the next. We hope to utilize data that is already available about drivers and use it in our controlled environment to recreate the situation and analyze the “why” of a certain outcome. This way we can go back and see what the driver was looking at and if there were things that could have changed the outcome. Another contribution is that, by the end, we will hopefully identify things that could advance road infrastructure and improve engineering designs.

What advice would you give a high school student interested in going into this field?

I would tell them to brace themselves because they are going to get into things they never thought were possible. It’s good to think about this field if you are interested in things like Star Trek and things in space, because this is a good way to experience that firsthand.

What is the next step for this research?

Well, we just won a grant by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Midwest Transportation Center, in collaboration with the Institute for Transportation at Iowa State. For the grant, we will examine the impact of different road infrastructure at two-way, stop controlled intersections.

By looking at components such as the wideness of merging lanes and the correlation with crashes, more can be understood about which infrastructure conditions provides the safest conditions.

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By Jackie Nester, Go! Staff Writer