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Health, Science & Environment

Highway workers got a dose of virtual reality to help keep them safe

University of Dayton Assistant Professor Namgyun Kim wearing a VR headset.
University of Dayton Assistant Professor Namgyun Kim developed software to not only train highway workers to respond to accidents but to track their physical and eye movement and pupil dilation so safety managers can analyze how they would behave in dangerous situations. This is the first of many VR applications in a variety of fields for Kim, including manufacturing.

U.S. highway workers suffer tens of thousands of injuries and 1,000 of them die every year. Over time, even sounds designed to keep them safe become monotonous. “And that is the moment when fatal accidents happen,” says Namgyun Kim, assistant professor department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Dayton.

Virtual software Kim designed is proving successful when it comes to increasing their safety awareness. The Texas-based construction company Webber tested his program on its workers. Now that Kim is at UD, he will reach out to local crews.

In the scenario Kim demonstrated for WVXU at UD’s new Intelligent Infrastructure Lab, workers are asked to clean up. Holding a real broom, Kim watches his virtual self at a construction site. A front loader is moving back and forth and at some point, sounds an alarm when it's getting close.

“Our system knows, 'Oh this guy doesn’t pay attention to surrounding hazards and then the accident will happen,' ” he says. The worker then virtually sees and feels the impact.

“To maximize this effort,” Kim explains, “we developed a wireless electronic stimulus system so we are going to add additional feedback during the accident, and we believe that will increase the effect of this safety training system.”

Kim says there are hundreds of safety training systems. So, what makes this one different besides the fact it's virtual? He says it can measure a worker's physical movement, eye movement and pupil dilation — elements safety managers can analyze to figure out how well workers behave in dangerous situations.

Highway construction training is only the beginning 

The university's new Intelligent Infrastructure Lab Manager Jack Hui Wong is thrilled about all the things this virtual space can do.

“This whole lab is very exciting, very new and also very powerful," he says. "We can do a lot of different research. For example, some application in psychology — we are going to do some human physical interaction in this virtual environment.”

One example is investigating how people interpret distance in virtual space so it can be accurate in physical space. Kim looks forward to developing other safety software scenarios for firefighters, manufacturers and electricians.

Robert Liang is UD’s department chair for civil engineering. His students are using the Intelligent Virtual Lab to build buildings.

“This will open up so many opportunities for different disciplines, researchers to conduct their research and to advance their field of science,” he says.

The Intelligent Infrastructure Engineering Lab was dedicated in August.

Copyright 2022 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

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Health, Science & Environment VRVirtual RealityTechnology
With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.