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Innovation

Using virtual reality to prevent wildfires

University of Central Florida (UCF) researchers want to immerse people in a virtual wildfire to encourage them to invest in prevention. The UCF research team has developed an interactive virtual reality simulation of a wildfire spreading through Volusia County. Participants will receive $100 of real money to be immersed in an environment which will cover about 30 years in an hour. They'll have to decide how much they want to invest in prescribed burns and insurance, and will keep some of the money depending on the final value of their land. The goal of the researchers is to demonstrate that virtual reality can be an effective public policy tool.
Written by Roland Piquepaille, Inactive on

University of Central Florida (UCF) researchers want to immerse people in a virtual wildfire to encourage them to invest in prevention. The UCF research team has developed an interactive virtual reality simulation of a wildfire spreading through Volusia County. Participants will receive $100 of real money to be immersed in an environment which will cover about 30 years in an hour. They'll have to decide how much they want to invest in prescribed burns and insurance, and will keep some of the money depending on the final value of their land. The goal of the researchers is to demonstrate that virtual reality can be an effective public policy tool. Interesting concept...

Simulation of wildfires

The images above are actually snapshots of an animation which plays out in real time for testers who can "control how they view the environment, by walking through the forest, flying over it or choosing a predefined path" (Credit: UCF)

This project is being carried out by a multidisciplinary team. Glenn Harrison and Elisabet (Lisa) Rutström are both Professor of Economics. They "will focus on the economic decisions that participants make and on why they decide -- or not -- to invest money in prescribed burns or insurance." Steve Fiore, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Sciences, "will analyze how the decisions of expert participants, such as forestry officials, vary from the decisions of participants without expertise in the subject." And Charles Hughes, a Professor of Computer Science, has designed "the forest simulation [that] will be able to model rapidly evolving wildfires, giving participants a realistic look at forests before, during and after fires and prescribed burns."

As reports the UCF news release, "the National Science Foundation provided $680,000 to fund the research. The simulations should begin within six months, and the first results should become available at the end of 2007. The entire study will take about two years."

But why would residents of Volusia County participate in such a high-tech experiment? First, they've probably not forgotten the massive wildfires of 1998. Then, "participants will be given about $100 of real money apiece, because researchers want to simulate spending decisions in a scenario that is as realistic as possible. The amount of money participants keep at the end will depend on the final value of their land. If they invest in prescribed burns and insurance, they will have to give up some of their $100, but they will have a greater probability of owning more valuable land at the end."

For more information, you can read a very long technical paper published by UCF which covers other issues as well, "Virtual Experiments and Environmental Policy" (PDF format, 92 pages, 4.91 MB, February 2007). The above illustrations can be seen on page 74 while the details of the simulation of how to handle wildfires are described between pages 75 and 80 of the document.

Sources: Chad Binette, University of Central Florida News, June 6, 2007; and various websites

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