UMR researchers are developing a virtual-reality training system that may provide an affordable way to teach emergency workers how to respond to chemical-weapon disasters.
“You can’t just release real chemicals into the environment and run a test — they’re toxic,” said Michael Hilgers, associate professor of computer science and director of the UMR lab that’s designing the system, known as First Responder Simulation and Training Environment, or FiRSTE. “It’s also fantastically expensive to do it that way.”
To keep costs down, Hilgers’ team used off-the-shelf items purchased at Wal-Mart — a $200 treadmill and programmable $15 video games — and linked them to a sophisticated computer system.
A hand-held Photo Ionization Detector, which sniffs for chemical agents, oxygen levels and the volatility of the environment, was cobbled together from parts scavenged out of several machines.
After discovering the virtual world can be a bit disorienting, team members built a PVC pipe structure complete with a safety harness to keep trainees from falling if they step off the treadmill.
After a few minutes wearing the goggles, the virtual world becomes remarkably real, said Alex Decker, a UMR senior who wrote many of the computer programs that created the buildings through which trainees walk. Tiny earphones add to the realism, as the trainee’s footsteps echo in the empty halls.
“You do get the feeling that you’re inside a building, going through the halls and through doors,” Decker said. “Because you’re actually walking while you do it, you can get a pretty good workout.”
Hilgers said the system reasonably approximates the stresses a first responder would encounter, and it helps teach them how to effectively search for chemical agents.
Hilgers hopes the system, which is being developed with a $1.05 million federal grant, eventually will be available to fire departments across the country. The federal grant runs out in August, but program leaders are fighting to get additional funding.