UI virtual lab to focus on texting pedestrians

Hank Virtual Environment Lab simulates real world dangers to study pedestrian and cyclist behaviors.

Luke Franzen, lab manager at Hank Virtual Environments Lab, tests the perspective control of the virtual reality set at the lab at McLean Hall in Iowa City, Iowa on Wednesday, June 11, 2014. (Justin Wan/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
Luke Franzen, lab manager at Hank Virtual Environments Lab, tests the perspective control of the virtual reality set at the lab at McLean Hall in Iowa City, Iowa on Wednesday, June 11, 2014. (Justin Wan/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

Mind the stop signs and watch out for cars in the virtual city on the third floor of McLean Hall on University of Iowa’s Pentacrest.

Human test subjects are immersed in this eerily real-looking but totally safe environment to study how cyclists and pedestrians behave when crossing traffic. The information could help improve safety through education and technology.

“Kids and adults will choose the same gap between cars, but as the lead car comes, adults will anticipate the arrival and start crossing,” said Joseph Kearney, a computer science professor and co-principal investigator of the project along with Jodie Plumert, a psychology professor. “Children wait for the lead car to pass, and then enter the intersection.”

“The kids have a lot closer calls, and we are trying to understand why they are doing that,” he said.

The experiments are conducted in UI’s Hank Virtual Environment Lab, which has received funding from National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

The virtual environments created in the lab allows researchers to study dangerous behaviors in a way they otherwise couldn’t.

In one of the newest experiments, funded with a $35,929 grant from the DOT, researchers will examine pedestrians distracted by texting, which is a growing problem.

Research from Dietrich Jehle, professor of emergency medicine at the University at Buffalo, found that more injuries result from distracted pedestrians than distracted driving, and that at least 10 percent, and likely many more, of the thousands of pedestrians treated in emergency rooms are due to cellphone accidents.

Kearney said the risk can be seen throughout the UI school year where thousands of people a day cross busy Clinton Street, which runs through the heart of campus and downtown Iowa City. Close calls between pedestrians distracted by their cellphones and vehicles are all too common, he said.

For the 18-month texting study, which just got underway and will conclude in November 2015, the UI research team will use a virtual simulation of a busy pedestrian street crossing to study whether a cellphone alert system that taps into a cellphone’s GPS can be effective in preventing injuries.

A coding team is now developing the technology. Pilot trials will begin this fall, with the official data collection next spring.

Much of the simulation itself has already been created, and Kearney was able to demonstrate how it will work.

Participants in the simulation will wear a hard hat with sensors on the end of protruding bolts. Optical cameras stationed around the lab monitor the sensors and triangulate the participant’s position so the environment remains oriented and the immersion feels real as the subject moves. Cars in the form of 3-D holograms pass in front of the participant, adding authenticity to the simulation.

Lab staff will distract the participant with texts, while the alerts will try to warn that the subject is approaching traffic.

The question for the research team is whether people will actually pay attention to the alert.

“Can we find that sweet spot where you are giving the alert when it’s needed, but it’s not too many where it gets ignored?” Kearney said.

A second part of the Hank lab is a bike simulator, in which a stationary bike is surrounded by three walls that simulate biking down the street. At intersections, a stream of cars cross with varying gaps in between.

On Wednesday, lab staff worked with 14 year-old Lucas Firmstone, of Iowa City.

The experiment allows researchers to examine when Firmstone stops and starts pedalling, and how wide of a gap he chooses to pass through the intersection.

Luke Franzen is part of the team of 10 scholars, professional staff and students that run the Hank Lab. As the lab manager, Franzen schedules and helps run the trials.

“There are virtually zero other virtual environments that allow you to simulate these real-world environments with this much control,” Franzen said. “Very few have the whole package with motion tracking and immersion. Virtual environments allow you to control every aspect of the environment to safely study things you can’t in the real world.”

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