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.

Haley Hatfield wins Top Paper award for research on racial bias in virtual reality

Haley Hatfield, a PhD student from El Dorado, Kansas, recently was awarded Top Paper honors from The Human Communication and Technology Division (HCTD) of the National Communication Association (NCA).

“I was a bit in shock, to be honest,” Hatfield said. “I care so much about this project and put so much of myself into it.”

Hatfield, along with her co-authors, submitted a paper titled: “Confronting Whiteness through Virtual Humans: A review of 20 years of research in prejudice and racial bias using virtual environments.”

The paper analyzes 53 studies that use virtual humans in the realm of video games or virtual reality and highlights areas where previous research did not display a historical understanding of racial inequality.

“When we interact with technology, it is easy to see it as being neutral or incapable of having biases,” Hatfield said of her research team’s findings. “It can be easy to forget that technology is created by biased humans and subsequently used by biased humans. And in many cases, these biases can become replicated within virtual spaces.”

Hatfield will present her findings to fellow researchers later this year in Seattle. (photo submitted)

Hatfield’s research is conducted in the Games and Virtual Environments Lab (GAVEL) with Grace Ahn and in the Brain, Body and Media Lab (BBAM) with Glenna Read. Hatfield’s focus is understanding the relationship between virtual reality and attitudes attributed to systemic racism and white privilege.

“I was so impressed with Haley’s tenacity and motivation,” said Ahn. “She always puts in a great deal of thought into her writing and every new draft she showed me was dramatically better than the earlier one.”

The paper emphasizes that virtual reality gives users a unique chance to feel experiences from others’ perspective. Hatfield says that opportunity makes it all the more important to be responsible and informed when portraying race in virtual environments.

“Moving forward, it will take a lot more listening from those who have been in the majority for so long and for those same people to continuously work to help uncover and responsibly dismantle systems of oppression within research and their personal lives,” said Hatfield.

Much of the research for this project occurred in the midst of the pandemic, when team collaboration was more difficult and feedback could be constrained due to distance. Ahn says those challenges made the work all the more impressive.

“She (Hatfield) is asking critical questions that force us to re-examine how we view and discuss technological advancements in communication, and I was glad that the reviewers agreed with us in seeing the significance of those discussions,” said Ahn. “We hope that this paper serves as an impetus to begin these difficult but important discussions. VR is a new and cool technology, but technological innovations alone are unable to resolve the problem of structural inequity and racism.”

This paper was Hatfield’s first submission to NCA. She will present the findings in person at NCA’s annual convention in Seattle in November.

Hatfield is in the AdPR track of the PhD program and aspires to become a tenured research professor where she can lead her own VR lab.

Encouraging young adults who don’t get a flu vaccination to get one: Study finds virtual reality may provide a path to increased acceptance

Using a virtual reality simulation to show how flu spreads and its impact on others could be a way to encourage more people to get a flu vaccination, according to a study by researchers at the University of Georgia and the Oak Ridge Associated Universities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This is the first published study to look at immersive virtual reality as a communication tool for improving flu vaccination rates among “flu vaccine avoidant” 18-to-49-year-old adults.

“When it comes to health issues, including flu, virtual reality holds promise because it can help people see the possible effects of their decisions, such as not getting a flu vaccine,” said Glen Nowak, the principal investigator and director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication headquartered at Grady College.  “In this study, we used immersive virtual reality to show people three outcomes—how if infected, they can pass flu along to others; what can happen when young children or older people get flu; and how being vaccinated helps protect the person who is vaccinated as well as others. Immersive VR increases our ability to give people a sense of what can happen if they do or don’t take a recommended action.”

The research, “Using Immersive Virtual Reality to Improve the Beliefs and Intentions of Influenza Vaccine Avoidant 18- to 49-year-olds,” was published by the journal Vaccine on December 2, which falls during National Influenza Vaccination Week (NVIW), Dec. 1 – 7, 2019. NIVW is a national awareness week focused on highlighting the importance of influenza vaccination.

The research was conducted by faculty at Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, including faculty in Grady’s Center for Health and Risk Communication. In addition to Nowak, other Grady faculty involved with the research include Nathaniel Evans, Bartosz Wojdynski, Sun Joo Ahn and María E.Len-Ríos. Kim Landrum, who teaches graphics classes at Grady College, helped illustrate the virtual reality and video simulations. The research was supported with support from a grant and researchers from ORAU.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the 2017-18 flu season, only 26.9% of 18- to 49-year-olds in the United States received a recommended annual influenza vaccination even though it is recommended for all 18-to-49-year-olds. The low current acceptance of flu vaccination makes it important to identify more persuasive ways to educate these adults about flu vaccination. The findings from this study suggest one-way virtual reality can be more effective is it can create a sense of presence or feeling like one is a part of what is happening.

The 171 participants in this study self-identified as those who had not received a flu shot last year and did not plan to receive one during the 2017-18 influenza season. In the study, participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups: 1) a five-minute virtual reality experience; 2) a 5-minute video that was identical to the VR experience but without the 3-dimensional and interactive elements; 3) an e-pamphlet that used text and pictures from the video presented on a tablet computer; and 4) a control condition that only viewed the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s influenza Vaccination Information Statement, which is often provided before a flu vaccine is given and describes benefits and risks. Participants in the VR, video and e-pamphlet conditions also viewed the CDC VIS before answering a series of questions regarding flu vaccination, including whether they would get a flu vaccine.

Glen Nowak and Karen Carera discuss whether virtual reality could help vaccination acceptance on the ORAU podcast, “Further Together.” Listen here.

In the VR condition, participants were provided headsets, which enabled them to vividly experience the information and events being shown as if they were in the story and video game controllers, which enabled them to actively participate at points in the story.  Compared to video or the e-pamphlet, the VR condition created a stronger perception of presence – that is, a feeling of “being there” in the story, which, in turn, increased participants’ concern about transmitting flu to others. This increased concern was associated with greater confidence that one’s flu vaccination would protect others, more positive beliefs about flu vaccine and increased intention to get a flu vaccination. Neither the e-pamphlet nor the video were able to elicit a sense of presence nor were they able to improve the impact of the VIS on the confidence, belief and intention measures.

“This study affirms there is much to be excited about when it comes to using virtual reality for heath communication,” Karen Carera, senior evaluation specialist at ORAU said. “However, the findings suggest that for virtual reality to change beliefs and behaviors, the presentations used need to do more than deliver a story. They need to get users to feel like they are actually in the story.”

“Using immersive virtual reality to improve the beliefs and intentions of influenza vaccine avoidant 18-to-49-year-olds: Considerations, effects, and lessons learned,” by Glen J. Nowak, et al. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.vaccine.2019.11.009. It appears online in “Vaccine” (2019) published by Elsevier.

Grady associate professor tests virtual reality program in Brunswick

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.

Grace Ahn demonstrates the VR hurricane simulation to Jill Gambill on August 16 in the GAVEL Lab at Grady College. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

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.


Grady College unveils virtual reality lab

Students at the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication can now have hands-on experience with virtual and augmented reality.

Grady College has opened the Virtual Environment Room and Gaming Experience lab to allow students and faculty members to engage in the VR world.

“VERGE allows students to experience a state-of-the-art lab and be able to better discuss what audiences and target markets are experiencing,” said Grace Ahn, advertising associate professor and VERGE co-director.

Grace Ahn teaches Alexander Pfeuffer, a fellow Grady College faculty member, how to use VERGE lab equipment during a faculty open house.

The lab features 15 immersive stations which allow up to 20 students to experience virtual reality at the same time. Some stations are capable of full body tracking. Others simply require wearing goggles.

“Video games are starting to merge with other forms of storytelling, giving the audiences more opportunities to interact differently with the narratives we encounter,” said Shira Chess, entertainment and media studies assistant professor and VERGE co-director.

One popular station is Beat Saber, an immersive music game in which players slash boxes representing musical beats with light sabers. Other stations include virtual reality experiences in fishing and golf, among others.

Grady College professors expect upcoming VR advancements to include more mobile and wireless hardware systems.

“Businesses are already training employees through virtual reality,” Ahn said. “We must open students’ eyes to see how they can relay messages and tell stories through the medium.”

Another advancement is the development of social VR, where users create avatars and interact with others from around the world.

“The exciting thing about VR and the VERGE lab is that we really don’t know where it is going, entirely,” said Chess. “It is a nascent form and it is up to younger generations to redefine what storytelling might look like within this format.”

The VERGE lab will be used for undergraduate and graduate student research. The lab was funded by the university’s student technology fund. It is located at Grady College room 504 and will be primarily available to classes.

Grace Ahn of Grady faculty leads $3.3 million grant award

Creating sustainable habits to increase physical activity and improve health is a goal many people share.

Now, thanks in part to a $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, researchers at the University of Georgia are using virtual reality to help children develop a more active lifestyle.

“The Virtual Fitness Buddy Ecosystem: Using Digital Technology to Promote and Sustain Moderate-to Vigorous Intensive Physical Activity in Children,” will fund a five-year program through the after-school program sponsored by the Metro Atlanta YMCA. Children ages 6- to 10-years-old will participate with their parents in the program.

“With this grant, we will try to encourage kids to exercise more, learn how to communicate with their parents regarding the exercise, and maintain and sustain a level of physical activity that they experience after school,” said Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, associate professor of advertising UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and principal investigator for the study.

The virtual dog that children interact with does a series of tricks including fetch, roll-over and stand-up, among others.
The virtual dog that children interact with does a series of tricks including fetch, roll-over and stand-up, among others.

Each child participating in the study will wear a personal fitness tracker, like a Fitbit, and set personal physical fitness goals. A virtual buddy kiosk will automatically detect each child’s physical activity status and send real-time updates to parents via text messages, even when they are not with the children.

One of the keys to the program will be social support from the parents. Every time the child participates in physical activity, the virtual buddy kiosk will send a text message to the parents notifying them of the activity. They can, in turn, send a message back to the child encouraging them and motivating them to maintain the activity. Parents can also closely monitor the child’s physical activity progress over time through a password-protected website specially created for the project.

Once the physical activity goals have been reached, children will be able to interact with a personalized virtual pet to as a reward. Using these everyday communication devices, the virtual pet, children and parents will be able to interact seamlessly together to create a robust ecosystem of support so that children can integrate physical activity into their daily lives.

Ahn says a lot of parents want to be involved with their child’s activity level and have good intentions of doing so, but don’t have the resources available to them while they work.

“We are presenting an intervention that allows them to be involved and that allows their children to be involved,” said Ahn. “We see a lot of excitement and willingness to take part in this.”

Ahn predicts that by harnessing the power of technology to connect people and devices, physical activity among children will increase, and will be maintained over extended periods of time.

“Dr. Ahn’s work explores issues critical to the health and vitality of American children, using the very latest in digital technology,” said Charles N. Davis, dean of Grady College. “Her research really represents Grady’s depth in emerging media technologies that can be used to address so many different issues of vital importance to citizens.”

Several successful pilot studies have already been conducted over a three-day time period to test the feasibility of bringing virtual reality to children of this age group. This grant allows the study to become much larger and increase the trial period to three months and include 720 children and their parents.

“With an innovative and multidisciplinary approach, Dr. Ahn and her colleagues are working to help young people lead healthier and more active lives,” said Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Pamela Whitten. “They exemplify how the breadth of the expertise at the University of Georgia makes this institution uniquely positioned to address some of the most important challenges facing our state and world.”

When the study is complete, a three-month, six-month and 12-month follow up will be conducted to see if the physical activity levels were sustained. Self-reports of data evaluating the continued interaction between the parents and children will be recorded, along with physical activity levels as read by the personal fitness trackers. Results will be compared with a control group that will have the physical fitness trackers, but not the virtual buddy kiosk nor the parental interaction.

In addition to the benefits of increased physical activity among children and increased involvement with the parents, Ahn said the program has the potential to reduce labor costs with traditional methods of hiring and training personnel who work as physical coaches.

Five other researchers at UGA are working on this grant, including Kyle Johnsen, associate professor of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering; Michael Schmidt, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology in the College of Education; Stephen Rathbun, professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in College of Public Health; Leann Birch, the William P. “Bill” Flatt Childhood Obesity Professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences; and Margaret O’Brien Caughy, the Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Family Health Disparities in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.