Ahn leads VR project with grant from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn and a team of researchers are recipients of a nearly $500,000 grant funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

The grant will fund a project called “Salient, Interactive, Relevant, Confidence, and Action (SIRCA): Using Virtual Reality Storm Surge Simulations to Increase Risk Perception and Prevention Behaviors.”

The project uses VR to better communicate and educate the risks of storm surge and climate change among coastal residents of Georgia and South Carolina.

“The problem of climate change and sea level rise is complex,” said Ahn, director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab (GAVEL) at Grady College. “We need to be cognizant of the fact we are trying to solve a complicated issue and help communicate these safe practices with different resources and needs.”

The new grant proposal focuses on two areas: 1. the experience of storm surge and mitigation behaviors and 2. creating a cross-platform experience that can be used with both headsets as well as a two-dimensional experience, like a kiosk at a museum, to reach the largest number of people.

Viewers, for example, may go through a simulation where they see their home flooded and experience personal risk through a storm surge. Different solutions users could have taken to mitigate the damage ahead of time are presented, like buying flood insurance, elevating their house and evacuating. The exercise is then repeated to show the effect of the viewer’s decision.

This new project is an extension of a prototype developed a few years ago that used VR to demonstrate the extent of damage to a home hit by a hurricane. The prototype was funded through a 2017 UGA Presidential Interdisciplinary Seed Grant.

A variety of platforms will be developed for this storm surge program to enable different audiences to learn in a variety of settings.

Ahn explains that organizations like NOAA are looking for the most effective ways to communicate the dangers of severe weather, and VR has been successful in converting messages to action. This is one of the first research grants like this from the NOAA Weather Program Office.

Studies show that messages delivered through a VR immersive experience have a longer lasting impact versus messages delivered by video or written communication.

The UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant is a partner in this research along with Clemson University and the National Weather Service South Carolina office.

Jill Gambill, a coastal resilience specialist with the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, explained this will be an important step in communicating story surge risks brought on by hurricanes and this information is expected to be used by the Weather Service, Department of Natural Resources and emergency managers, among others.

“It can be difficult to estimate the risks and this can be helpful in understanding the impact and lesson the threat to their homes and to their families,” Gambill said. “It’s exciting to be working with this really cool product that will help people be safer.”

Another important part of this project is offering options that are available to diverse circumstances.

“We know options like elevating a house aren’t available to everyone and we want to make sure we are cognizant of presenting a range of recommendations to mitigate risk,” Gambill said.

The team will be working with organizations like the National Estaurine Research Reserve and Harambee House, an environmental justice group in Savannah, to ensure that the solutions meet the needs of communities.

The simulations will be paired with training modules through workshops and outreach, as well as follow-up surveys over time to determine if any actions were taken by those who experienced the VR education.

One of the most important benefits of VR is its impact in translational science, or taking scientific findings and communicating them to audiences so they can make informed decisions.

“Projects like this provide a huge opportunity for communication scholars to address critical social issues like climate change and directly impact the communities around us through communication science,” Ahn said.

The research is expected take place over two years.

Grace Ahn named 2019 Krieghbaum Under-40 Award recipient

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, associate professor of advertising at Grady College, has been named the recipient of the 2019 Krieghbaum Under-40 Award by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. The award is one of the highest honors given by AEJMC, and will be presented during the annual AEJMC conference in Toronto.

“This is an enormous honor,” said Charles Davis, dean of Grady College. “The entire journalism and mass communication academy recognizes a single faculty member each year for this, so Grace has been recognized by the entire discipline.”

In addition to her role as associate professor, Ahn is also the director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab and co-director of the new VERGE Lab.

The award is named after the late Hillier Krieghbaum, a former professor at New York University and former president of AEJMC, to honor a journalism/communication faculty member who has made outstanding contributions to the industry in three key areas: teaching, research and public service.

Grace Ahn (right) leads an Alumni Weekend participant in a virtual reality workshop in 2017. (Photo: Camie Williams)

Ahn teaches undergraduate research methods classes, as well as graduate-level user experience research, communication theory and advertising classes.

Ahn’s research specializes in how interactive digital media transforms traditional rules of communication and social interactions, especially through virtual reality applications with regard to health, consumer psychology, conservation and education. Currently, she is working on a $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for “The Virtual Fitness Buddy Ecosystem” encouraging children to have a more active lifestyle by using digital technology and incenting them with rewards through virtual reality interaction. In Spring 2019, Ahn received a First-Year Odyssey Teaching Award from the UGA Office of Instruction for her seminar, “Harnessing the Power of Digital Technology for Better Lifestyle Choices,” and was awarded the Charles B. Knapp Early-Career Scholar Award in 2017. She was recently awarded an Interdisciplinary Seed Grant from UGA for an upcoming project using digital technology to bring families of deployed military together in virtual family rooms. She also received the 2017 AEJMC Emerging Scholar Grant.

“Emerging technologies like VR/AR have the potential to dramatically shift the way we communicate and interact with each other,” Ahn said of her work. “My research looks at how audiences can engage with virtual worlds in unprecedented ways, and how these virtual experiences impact the way people think and make decisions in the physical world. I’m incredibly honored and humbled to be recognized for the contributions that my work has been making to extend the earlier work in this area.”

Ahn will accept her Krieghbaum Under-40 Award during the General Session at the AEJMC Conference on Aug. 9 at 10 a.m.

In addition to Ahn, Yan Jin, the UGA Athletic Association Professor in Grady College, received the Krieghbaum Under-40 Award in 2014.