Virtual reality is no longer just a futuristic technology found only in sci-fi movies and video games. Now, VR programs are being used for treatment of PTSD, training medical students, and now, preparing at-risk communities for natural disasters.
Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, an associate professor of advertising, developed a virtual reality program that recently made its debut at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s open house on Sept. 26 in Brunswick, Georgia. The project is designed to familiarize coastal residents with the dangers of storm surges and how to prepare for a hurricane.
Ahn, the director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab, created the program in collaboration with UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s coastal resilience specialist Jill Gambill, a Public Service faculty member at the University of Georgia, serving as the Coastal Community Resilience Specialist for UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.
The VR program was funded by an Interdisciplinary Seed Grant awarded by the president of the University of Georgia in June 2017. Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant provided supplemental funding to bring the project to completion.
Virtual reality is an immersive simulation that allows users to see, hear and interact with the created environment. Those testing the hurricane VR wore headsets and used handheld controllers to make decisions within the simulated situation.
“This was a very integrative project, combining [Ahn’s] expertise in VR design with my knowledge of storm surge and hurricane risks,” said Gambill, who is also a student in the Integrative Conservation PhD program at UGA.
In an interview with Future of Storytelling, Ahn says that VR technology is able to change behaviors in a way information alone cannot. By actively participating with VR, the user is invested in the given scenario and can see the personalized consequences of certain behaviors first-hand.
The hurricane VR program attempts to encourage users to make preparations and have a plan in place in the event of a storm surge. The program allows users to customize a coastal home, which is later damaged by a storm. The users then have the option of elevating their home by 10 feet, putting it out of reach of flood waters and storm surge. This action along with following suggested guidelines and emergency protocols protect themselves and their home from the storm.
“We’re trying to see if people understand that making these preparations is not as difficult as people might think,” said Ahn. “Coming back to your life after a hurricane may be a lot easier if you make these preparations.”
Georgia has been impacted by four hurricanes in the last four years: Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Hurricane Irma in 2017, Hurricane Michael in 2018, and Hurricane Dorian in early September 2019.
“These disasters took lives, damaged homes, businesses and critical infrastructure, disrupted livelihoods and had detrimental financial implications for the state,” said Gambill.
By educating coastal Georgians and others across the country on storm surge preparation, the VR program has the potential to mitigate the dangers of these natural disasters.
The hurricane VR was piloted at the open house to check the functionality of the program. Ahn and Gambill wanted to make sure users understood the instructions given in the simulation and could navigate the world without confusion.
Feedback from the users at the open house is being used to improve the program, which is estimated to be finalized by the end of the academic schoolyear.
“The VR is part of a larger effort, in terms of UGA researchers’ efforts to adapt to climate change and increase coastal area resilience,” said Ahn.
The final version of the VR program will be used as a teaching tool by UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.