Fire Researchers Fuel Efforts With Virtual Reality

Fire Researchers Fuel Efforts With Virtual Reality

15 September 2009

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At the Media Convergence Laboratory at the University of Central Florida, engineers and artists are combining their technical knowledge of video games, virtual reality and a variety of military and commercial products.

Now they’re examining the science of wildland fires with the the Forest Fire project, funded by the National Science Foundation, which blends psychology, computer science and economics, according to a report in NSF’s online “Science Nation” by Producer Marsha Walton.

The aim is to find out if a virtual reality presentation of wildfires might influence local residents to invest in prescribed burns and other protective efforts.

As described in a “Science Nation” video—which is a fascinating and beautiful view of this powerful force of nature—the technology might be called “mixed reality,” combining computer elements with regular old reality.

“The whole idea for the forest fire project came because people from another discipline were walking through our lab and realizing that we have technology to solve problems that they have,” said Charles Hughes, director of MCL and professor of computer science and electrical engineering.

“What we came up with was a blending of different approaches,” said Stephen Fiore, director of UCF’s Cognitive Sciences Laboratory at the Institute for Simulation and Training and also a professor of Philosophy. “From psychology, you have the study of expertise and decision making. From computer science, you have virtual reality simulations of real world context. And, from economics, you have environmental policy and decision-making. We had a unique opportunity to combine these.”

Professor Elisabet Rutström specializes in experimental economics. She is working with local residents who are viewing the wildfire visualization.

“I give them some money up front and say, ‘You can use this money to pay for a prescribed burn and, if the house doesn’t burn, I will pay you an amount of money to buy it back at the end,’ so there are real economic incentives,” said Rutström. “We found that virtual reality software had a significant impact on the accuracy of people’s perception of the risk.”

To make their wildfire visualization as real as possible, the researchers worked closely with local fire experts.

“I was trying to make sure they depicted wildfires as accurately as possible,” said Wil Kitchings of the Florida Division of Forestry. “I was interested, really, to see what kind of things went into it, as far as weather parameters and landscapes.”

“They came to us as experts on vegetative communities in Florida and on the visual component of the program that they were building,” said Alaina Bernard, land manager for UCF. She helped the researchers learn about “prescribed burning and wildfire vernacular.”

Fiore said the merging of disciplines is necessary to tackle the complex medical, social and environmental problems the world faces.

“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘The way nature has divided up its problems is not the same way universities have divided up their departments,'” said Fiore. “If you want to solve problems in the real world, you need to take a multidisciplinary approach, look at it from different lenses, and try to more fully illuminate that problem.”

Virtual reality and mixed reality (the blending of virtual content with real content) are now being used in a wide range of scientific applications, including a growing number of medical therapies.

Also at the MCL is “The Everglades Project,” another NSF-funded effort that looks at how technology can enhance museum exhibits. “Water’s Journey Through the Everglades,” opens at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Ft. Lauderdale in about 18 months.

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