Aidex Voices

Amidst the digital revolution, virtual reality (VR) is being used diversely. From helping amputees adjust to prosthetics, to educating firefighters on how to deal with virtual hazards, this emerging technology is proving itself a valuable teaching tool.

To explore the possibilities of VR within a humanitarian disaster relief context, not-for-profit development company Crown Agent’s recently launched a 360° VR experience as a means of demonstrating the complexities of disaster response. AidEx took the Oculus headset for a spin to find out whether the experience could go further than raising awareness.

The headset is fitted comfortably over your eyes and the small remote placed in one hand which you will use to determine your decisions. The screen turns on and your brief appears, explaining that there is an unfolding crisis in a region called ‘K-Land’. You click the remote to enter the operations room where Team Leader Teri at ops HQ in London explains the situation on the ground, which includes militia attacks, drought, displacement and malnutrition.

You are told to speak to the humanitarian field team for updates immediately, and taken inside an emergency deployment tent. Here, by moving your head you follow Paul around the room as he describes the deteriorating security concerns over the phone. Gunshots sound outside, he quickly degrades the danger. By clicking on information hotspots planted around the room you are asked to make a quick, informed decision on response prioritisation; do you focus on the 80,000 people trapped in the north-west valley, or the two million migrating from the north-east?

You are taken back to London HQ to discuss risk management with Crisis Response Adviser, Jake, who provides you with a logistics and security briefing. Time is running short and you must decide how to put the response into action; do you use local ground convoys or fly outside airdrops? Both come with fatal risks.

Oculus 3

An AidEx staff member experiencing Crown Agent's VR emergency response tool

Now you return to the tent to speak to operations on the ground who loses connection just after requesting an executive decision that is needed within the next ten minutes. You must submit your report, and head back to London HQ to hear what rapid responses have been chosen.

Within just ten minutes, the fictional narrative takes you on a humanitarian response rollercoaster where complex and fast-moving responses are required for the survival of so many lives. Being put on the spot to make decisions first-hand to control a crisis during the experience feels like a tremendous responsibility, accurately conveying the day-to-day high stress and pressures of working in the field.

Other than generating empathy and in turn countering desensitisation through creating such a realistic environment, there is enormous potential in the data that can be collected from decision-making patterns, which can support the development of training tools for aid workers.

The beauty of VR is absolute immersion; the way it consumes your senses and eliminates the outside world with an interactive headset. Unlike technology such as mobile phones and television where you can multitask and divert your attention, VR requires total focus on the reality it is virtually presenting. It looks, feels, and sounds like this technology could well be the best way to teach dangerous jobs in safe environments.

Meet Crown Agents and try the VR headset at AidEx in Brussels on 14 and 15 November 2018 on stand E20/k. The web-version of the tool is available to try here.