Virtual reality for earthquake fears

From Munich, at the Euroscience Open Forum meeting

A team of researchers is developing computer-generated, virtual reality technology to prepare 12-to-16-year-old Greek children, including those with special needs, for a terrifying event they’re likely to encounter: an earthquake.

The researchers created a computer model of a local school filled with virtual students. The model triggers sounds, rolling motions, and tumult associated with a major quake. Psychologist Ioannis Tarnanas of the Western Macedonia Research Center in Kozani, Greece, then recruited 50 children with Down syndrome and 90 children without that disorder to don headphones and scene-projecting goggles to experience a quake hitting the virtual school.

By chance, a real earthquake occurred a few months after the children had received the training. The researchers then assessed differences in coping and emotional security between children who had and hadn’t been prepared by the virtual reality training.

Tarnanas found that the trained children outperformed their untrained counterparts in coping with a real quake, according to answers to questionnaires given each group. For instance, among children without Down syndrome, trained students were 45 percent better at following their teachers’ quake-safety instructions. Children with Down syndrome showed nearly as big an improvement with training. In a separate measurement, 87 percent of the virtually trained children with Down syndrome were panicfree after the real quake versus just 20 percent of untrained students with the disorder.

Concludes Tarnanas, “We showed [that] virtual reality is useful for children, even those with special needs, in reducing natural [panic] about unexpected events.”

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.