The CDC just spent $626,000 on virtual reality. Here’s why.

August 2, 2013

(artefactgroup/Flickr)

You push past the flap of the command hut and instinctively shield your eyes from the brightness of the sun outside. As they adjust to the light, your eyes start to see what your ears and nose are already telling you — this is no ordinary town. The stench of human waste and diesel fumes drifts across a landscape studded with hastily assembled tents. Somewhere out of sight there's the rattle and hum of a generator. A faint, ragged skyline in the distance hints at where a handful of buildings once stood before the quake hit. A gray layer of ash is already settling on your jacket.

That's the kind of scene that first-responders might soon be facing — not because any  tectonic activity is imminent, but because the Centers for Disease Control.and Prevention is deploying a new, immersive virtual reality training tool. The VR environment, which can process sounds and smells in addition to sights, is intended to help both experienced and novice emergency workers prepare for real-world crises.

"Forewarned is forearmed," CDC officials wrote in a project memo in May. "We want our folks to get a realistic preview of what they're likely to experience in the field."

The project is already three phases in. The pilot phase in 2008 involved simple, half-hour simulations designed for two people. Wearing head-mounted displays, the trainees were given tasks to perform by an in-game team leader. Then CDC ditched the bulky headgear and for phase two designed a system that would let up to 30 people take the training at the same time in group settings. Each trainee group had access to an iPod Touch that became a part of the simulation. In some scenarios, for instance, the iPod turned into a geiger counter. The scenarios grew longer, too — stretching to almost an hour.

Barbara Reynolds is a CDC psychologist and spokesperson who tried out the pilot equipment.

"I was in this small village with thatched roofs and a few cinderblock buildings," said Reynolds. "There were bodies stacked up that had died from something unknown. There were security guards with weapons protecting the place. Women were wailing for their deceased relatives."

She said while the experience wasn't a perfect match to her real-world deployment to Hong Kong to study bird flu, many of the emotions — a sense of "newness and uncertainty" — felt familiar.

"There was a sense of reality," she added. "It was chaotic. I expect my blood pressure rose a bit while I was sitting there."

Now officials want to expand the program. According to a $626,000 contract awarded Thursday to Atlanta-based company Virtually Better, Inc., phase three of the CDC's plan calls for a virtual reality environment featuring from two to three dozen "sights, sounds, smells or ideas." (The notion of adding olfactory components to VR equipment has been kicking around for a while, and the CDC wants odors as varied as urine and garbage.) The agency also wants to be able to adjust the settings according to trainees' experience levels. Disaster scenarios will be drawn straight from the Department of Homeland Security. With the training, the contract said, emergency workers will get a better "emotional vaccination," and it might even help returning responders cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Although we're probably not talking Battlefield-grade realism, the contract explicitly demands "photographic quality" that can make users temporarily forget it's a simulation. Here's more:

(CDC)
(CDC)
Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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