The basement room in the psychology building at the University of Guelph is bare and dimly lit with little hint of the outside world.
But any school-age child who stands at one end and dons a special wired headset is immediately transported to a different place. They end up in a neighbourhood of green lawns, deciduous trees and brick houses below a blue sky with wispy clouds.
The key feature of this simulated 3D world is the stretch of grey asphalt directly in front, with a procession of cars approaching from the left and rumbling by.
Through two lenses resembling binoculars, the child sees a green spot on the opposite side. The goal: to get there safely, crossing between the cars.
The view that changes with each turn of the head is projected onto a computer screen in real time, courtesy of the eight cameras mounted on the walls above. An accelerometer records their every move.
And in an adjoining booth, grad student Michael Corbett can alter the speed of the vehicles or the space between them to monitor pedestrian behaviour in different situations.
Kids who make it safely breathe a sigh of relief. Those who don’t may glimpse the alarming approach of an oncoming car and the shriek of a siren — though the image disappears before making “virtual” contact.
Either way, they all seem to have fun.
“We’re studying how children cross streets in real traffic conditions,” says Barbara Morrongiello, leader of the Virtual Reality Child Pedestrian Studies lab.
Past research has been missing key information, such as how kids react and adjust their behaviour, says the psychology professor, who holds the Canada Research Chair in child and youth injury prevention.
“When do they know ‘I’m in trouble and I need to change my plan?’ That’s a really important piece that we need to know.”
Unlike the handful of other pedestrian labs on the continent that may use mock streetscapes or study decisions kids make before they leave the curb, this unique project is equipped to monitor a child’s reactions throughout the process, in real time.
At what age can kids respond promptly to new cues, change their minds or quicken the pace if a car is coming faster than they thought? How do they fare with larger gaps between cars? How do parked cars influence their decisions? What about crosswalks and speed bumps?
These are the kinds of questions the researchers hope to be able to address using the detailed data that is measured and stored for every participant.
There’s more to crossing the street than meets the eye. It draws on a complex mix of cognitive skills, from physical coordination and spatial perception to attention, decision-making and the ability to juggle multiple pieces of information they see and hear.
Understanding how these skills develop and what factors influence them are key to devising the most effective safety strategies and changes in the street environment that may reduce risk of injury.
For example, young children tend to overestimate their physical abilities, says Morrongiello. And kids are better at judging distance than speed cues, which means they can be fooled into thinking a car farther away is safe without accounting for how fast it travels. They may be distracted in a group, and often believe drivers will always see them and stop.
Since the lab launched 18 months ago, about 250 children between ages 6 and 12 have participated in two-hour sessions, which also include a series of tests in the form of videogames that measure their cognitive skills and attention.
Morrongiello and her team of grad students have another goal. They are designing a training system for students in Grades 1 to 3 to teach safe pedestrian behaviour in virtual settings.
The idea would be to provide a variety of simulated streetscapes — one-way streets, intersections with traffic signals, crosswalks or quiet streets — and let them learn safety by actually practising crucial decisions like where to cross and when.
Morrongiello hopes to begin piloting a program with six Guelph elementary schools by early next year.
The virtual reality lab, designed by computer science and psychology students from Guelph and the University of Waterloo, is funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, and the University of Guelph.