Immersive VR by UniSA empowering kids to survive in fire, flood, and war

Professor Delene Weber, Senior Lecturer at University of South Australia

When you live in the most arid State in the most arid country in the world, bushfires are rather an unfortunate, and all-too-regular part of life. Learning how to survive such emergencies is important for all people, but especially for our youngest citizens.

A virtual reality (VR) experience developed by the University of South Australia is educating children about bushfires and helping them learn how to be safer in a bushfire incident.

How does the program work?

Focusing on kids aged 10-12 years, the VR experience presents a scenario where kids are tasked to look after a friend’s dog just before a fire event begins to unfold. They take part in a series of problem-solving activities to help save and protect themselves and the dog.

Published in the Journal of Educational Computing, the research shows how immersive VR experiences can deliver big positive learning outcomes for primary children, independent of their gender, background knowledge or perceived ability to respond to bushfire hazards.

The findings showed that more than 80% of kids agreed or strongly agreed that they felt more confident to calmly evaluate the options and make wise decisions to protect themselves. This is vital considering that 91% of participants originally lacked any knowledge of fires, and that 67% had said that they were too young to make safety decisions in a fire.

What is the purpose of the program?

The project was part of Safa Molan’s PhD project. Her supervisor and fellow researcher, UniSA’s Professor Delene Weber believes that immersive virtual reality experiences have enormous potential to engage, educate and empower younger generations.

“Virtual Reality has enormous potential to teach children about emergencies. As digital natives, they are engaged by technology, so when it’s immersive – as it is with Virtual Reality – they can experience events realistically, yet within safe parameters,” Prof Weber says.

“Well-designed VR can provide an opportunity for kids to apply acquired knowledge, reinforce their learnt concepts, and enable immediate feedback – all incredibly valuable learning tools.”

“We applied best practice in terms of VR and educational design, showing how VR can achieve higher order learning skills such as analysis and application of information to a new situation. And we tested the effectiveness on one of the most vulnerable groups – children.”

“Because kids have fewer life experiences to build resilience, aren’t as physically strong, and are less likely to have learned much about bushfire safety, they’re often most at risk. Yet the capacity for kids to contribute to bushfire safety at household level shouldn’t be belittled.”

“Kids do not need to be passive victims of disasters and with purpose-built VR experiences like these, we can help empower children to understand the risks but realise they can help.”

Where else can the VR program be applied?

Prof Weber says immersive virtual reality technology could potentially be used for other disaster scenarios such as floods or war environments. “Building resilience before a traumatic event occurs is invaluable, which is where virtual reality can help,” Prof Weber says.

“VR is empowering kids to understand how their can control aspects within a disaster and it helps them build confidence so that they can contribute positively rather than being afraid.”

“This tech could be applied to other disasters such as floods and wars – which is particularly pertinent now with extreme floods still affecting NSW and Queensland, and Ukraine.”

“There is certainly no reason you wouldn’t get the same positive results when focused on different traumatic events – although the more predictable the processes are, the easier it would be for designers to create a relevant scenario,” Prof Weber further commented.

Heading into school holidays, the CFS is currently warning families and young people to take care if considering a campfire, especially with dry grass and warm weather still lingering. And with teens often trusted to enjoy some independence alone, it’s vital that they pay attention.

In line with holiday trends, Prof Weber is also hoping to investigate VR education scenarios for teenagers and young adults. “Building competencies and resilience in young people of all ages is vital for their ability to survive in disaster situations – nothing in life is guaranteed, but we want to make sure that our children are given the very best chance,” Prof Weber concluded.