Putting pedal to virtual metal
by Fariss Samarrai
such as this young woman, get to cruise the virtual streets
of Charlottesville behind the wheel of the simulator.
By Fariss Samarrai
drove through an intersection and off a cliff. The world went
no! I forgot to tell you to turn left at the stop sign,
said Brenda Corace, a research assistant in the U.Va. Center
for Behavioral Medicine.
survived. No impact, no pain, no blood and guts. I simply walked
away. Which is the point.
was driving a simulator.
is a research assistant for a project that is testing a new driving
simulator that may someday be the way you take a driving test.
The simulator could test your reaction during an emergency, such
as when a Mack truck suddenly crosses your path.
it will be used in clinical trials to evaluate the effects of
aging, medications, disease and alcohol on driving performance.
And it could save lives by making people better drivers.
the meantime, its making some people sick.
one of the problems were working on, said Daniel Cox,
professor of psychiatric medicine and lead investigator on the
project. Depending on age and health and other factors,
about 5 to 50 percent of the people who drive the simulator get
dizzy. Recently, one of them wanted to vomit.
didnt have time to get sick; I drove off the cliff. But
the driving experience is a bit like steering an IMAX
screen. A lot of exaggerated motion, up close and personal. While
steering and stepping on the gas and braking, I wanted
to turn my head at odd angles and twist my tongue.
at Virginia Tech and Northeastern University designed and produced
the simulator with a $120,000 grant from the Carilion Biomedical
Institute. Driving evaluators from DMV served as consultants,
and U.Va. is testing the equipment with human drivers and preparing
for clinical trials once the kinks are worked out. It should be
problem is that the eyes sense motion but the inner ear doesnt,
said Cox. A big part of our research right now is finding
ways to diminish the sickness.
simulator looks like a fancy version of an arcade game, with a
dashboard, drivers seat, speedometer, gas pedal and brake.
No seat belt needed. In one version the driver faces a 50-inch
screen. Another version is a virtual reality headset that allows
drivers to see traffic approaching from left and right. This is
the one that makes most people dizzy, because of its narrow field
both versions drivers get to cruise the virtual streets of Charlottesville.
The streets look real but also animated like something
out of the movie Toy Story. As you drive, an engine
rumbles, and the seat vibrates. Take a sharp turn and the tires
way people drive on a simulator is mirrored in the way they drive
on the road, Cox said.
joked that people may be getting sick from carbon monoxide poisoning.
He grinned, even if the simulation sickness problem is a real
problem for him.
He showed me one scene where people get queasy a street
with tall trees on each side, creating a tunnel effect.
probably going to cut down those trees, he said.
simulated driving course begins at the Charlottesville DMV office.
The driver steers from the parking lot, eventually onto Jefferson
Park Avenue to Lynchburg Road to 5th Street. The trip continues
on Interstate 64 before returning to DMV.
is a great tool for testing drivers, Cox said. On-road
tests are inaccurate, subjective, and drivers experience different
driving conditions and demands day-to-day and in different locations.
A simulator is a way to standardize the test.
a simulator can test a drivers reaction to a high-risk situation,
such as when a pedestrian suddenly steps onto the road. This is
something that cant be built into an on-road test, and most
would not want to see the results of a novice driver facing such
a situation on a real street.
simulator also includes playback so drivers can learn from their
mistakes. And eventually it could be adapted to people with disabilities
and as a rehabilitation training tool for people who have been
has been using simulators for more than 15 years to test the effects
on driving performance of medications and diseases such as hypertension
and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.
with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder have an increased
risk of driving mishaps, Cox said. Were looking
for ways to bring the high risk down to normal.
he got the new simulator Cox was using a customized Atari arcade
realized long ago that such a machine was useful for something
other than collecting quarters, he said.