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New virtual reality program simulates disaster triage

First responder VR helps prepares emergency personnel

Scenario: There has a been a subway explosion. You are a trained first responder. A dozen people are injured on the platform in front of you, and you must figure out whom to help first. Where do you begin? How does the stress of that situation impact your judgment? Are you able to provide medical aid quickly and accurately?

That triage scenario is tragic, but it’s also very real. Training first responders how to act in situations like this can be expensive, time consuming and difficult to repeat.

But thanks to an immersive new virtual reality program developed by Ohio State’s Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD) and the College of Medicine, first responders can now get quick, repeatable training for disaster scenarios.

“It’s the rapid decision-making when you have multiple patients that is really difficult for [first responders] to practice,” said Vita Berezina-Blackburn, a senior creative technologist at ACCAD.

The new software, known as First Responder VR, was successfully completed after five years of development and user testing, and places a trainee in the middle of a chaotic scene. The trainee dons a VR headset and holds a controller in each hand, allowing them to interact with their environment.

When the simulation begins, trainees are transported to a subway station rendered in high-quality graphics. People lie on the floor with varying injuries. Some are minor, others catastrophic. The trainee can give the patients verbal commands with voice recognition technology, walk up to them, check their pulse and administer multiple types of first aid with a virtual triage kit that hovers at their side.

From start to finish, the entire program might take 15-20 minutes. Compared to “Disaster Day” training scenarios that involve complex set-building, large amounts of space and paid actors, the benefits of ACCAD’s virtual reality program are easy to see. And the program has benefits for the trainees as well as the organizations running simulations.

“This gets the trainee an impression of what it would be like to enter into this environment, taking the edge off,” said Jeremy Patterson, a senior graphics researcher at ACCAD. “So the first time – hopefully they never encounter a situation like this – but if they do, they’re not taken aback by what it looks like with smoke and the injured patients.”

First Responder VR has its roots in an interactive training program called “Virtual Patient” created in another collaboration between ACCAD’s Alan Price and Dr. Douglas Danforth from the College of Medicine. Virtual Patient’s goal was to simulate patients describing their symptoms so medical school students could learn to interact with patients in the early stages of their schooling. With Virtual Patient’s success, Danforth and Dr. Nicholas Kman from the College of Medicine reached out to ACCAD to jointly create a training software for triage during disasters.

First Responder VR has already seen success with the actual trainees who have used it. The development team has been impressed by how quickly and efficiently multiple trainees could go through the system. Many initially apprehensive users begin to praise the system after they use it.

Those early successes have turned into positive news coverage across the country, along with requests for the software from within Ohio but also from as far away as Hawaii and Hong Kong. The developers have considered spinning the program off to its own full-time production company, and there have also been discussions about broadening the target audience so more people can be trained in triage techniques.

“Unfortunately, [disasters] happen a lot,” Patterson said. “[More people] being able to better deal with them is probably a good thing.”

Additional collaborators on First Responder VR include Alex Oliszewski from the Department of Theatre, Film, and Media Arts; Scott Swearingen and Zach Winegardner from the Department of Design; and ACCAD graduate students Abby Ayers, Tori Campbell, Sana asl Benham, Void Mordant, Stacey Dunten, Jacob Athyal and Heran Zhou.

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