Virtual reality helps scare residents out of storms, says research



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NEW YORK (Reuters) – Virtual reality simulations work better than traditional alerts to motivate people to evacuate before the hurricanes, new research released on Friday shows. Researchers are looking for ways to improve alert methods as the risk of extreme weather increases.

Usually using headphones for viewers to look at, dramatic simulations can create a sense of urgency and fear, said the study by researchers at Hofstra University in New York.

With ocean warming and rising sea levels expected to intensify hurricanes and other extreme weather conditions, researchers have been looking for better ways to warn people not to be harmed.

Participants who saw the virtual reality of a storm were significantly more likely to say they would make the home preparations or evacuate than those who saw traditional weather maps or text alerts, the Hofstra research found.

"Many people just get scared at this because it's like being stuck and slowly thinking you're going to drown," said Jasser Bernhardt, senior author and professor of geology, environment and sustainability at Hofstra.

"It causes a visceral reaction that makes them say," Yeah, I'd really take those warnings seriously, now that I really see what that is, "he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the study, university students were told of an impending storm.

Some have been shown traditional warnings, and others have seen a virtual reality simulation of a hurricane, with 360 degree view of the rising water and flying debris and surround sound of the wind roaring.

Almost 90% of those who watched the simulation said they would evacuate, but only 70% of those who saw the traditional media said the same.

"The VR experience can create a sense of fear and get people to think about what they really would do," said one of the interviewees quoted in the report, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

A number of factors prevent people from evacuating, including illness, age and fear that shelters will not help them, the report said.

Virtual reality technology is becoming more available to individual users, and outreach programs with schools and communities can bring it to a wider audience, Bernhardt said.

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