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Deakin’s mixed reality simulator for safer journey

It is almost inevitable that as you age, your sense of sight and sound aren’t quite what they used to be. Hence, for older drivers, the newly developed mixed reality driving simulator to earn back a sense of agency as well as feedback on how they are performing.

The first-of-its kind technology is developed by engineers from Deakin University for aged care provider Maclean Care. The team received AUD 726, 000 in grants from the Federal Government’s Dementia and Aged Care Services Fund.

How the Simulator Works

Hector is the first older driver simulator. Lead designer Associate Professor Ben Horan, Associate Head of School (Research) in Deakin’s School of Engineering, said Hector could be the start of a fleet of adapted vehicles used in driver testing.

He said, “Access to this simulator will give older drivers an idea of how they’re performing over time, so it’s great for people who are keen to maintain their independence but also keep an eye on how they’re tracking.

“It gives users a simulated driving experience and afterwards provides a read out of their reaction time and some important health metrics like heart rate.

“You’re actually sitting in a car, in this case a Holden Captiva. We cut that in half and then integrated all the technology inside it. So you’ve got the feel of the seats, your seatbelt, pedals, indicators, and we even put feedback into steering wheel to give a real sensation of driving in different terrain.

“Then when you put the headset on you’re driving around the local neighbourhood and you see local landmarks.

“Of course this doesn’t replace the need for an older driver to see their regular GP for accurate testing, but it can be a fun, easy and accessible way to check in initially.”

To develop Hector, a group of 50 older people were involved in the process. They gave feedback on issues of accessibility, such as car seat height so that getting in and out was easy. Furthermore, the engineers had to ensure that the technology was something older people were comfortable with. The technology needed to be something relatively familiar and not too intimidating.

According Associate Professor Horan, the feedback has been fantastic and people are optimistic.

Mixed Reality for Good

Deakin Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander AO said the project demonstrated perfectly how the University’s engineers were forging new ground in the burgeoning field of mixed or extended reality to benefit the community.

She said, “Deakin is committed to supporting the communities we serve and I am delighted to see that this particular project, developed with the aim of helping inform older drivers in decisions relating to their license, is taking advantage of the very latest technology so that we can just do that.”

“It is also a good example of just what is possible when you match research and development expertise with government support to provide solutions to industry and is not surprising that is already getting attention from around the world.

“The technology provides a more realistic experience than your typical simulator or VR headset, recognising that to immerse someone in a task there are many subtle things that need to be incorporated outside of just what can be seen.

“This is work that Deakin is continuing to advance through the development of extended reality systems for education, training and upskilling, which ultimately help make life safer for everyone living and working in the communities we serve.”

The Road Ahead

Associate Professor Horan said the research collaborators hoped that road authorities and licensing bodies might also be interested in the technology for learner driving and testing.

“For example, it could be an effective update of the current hazards testing used when teenagers sit for their learner’s permit,” Associate Professor Horan said.

“It could also be used to help learners experience dangerous situations that they might not necessarily come across in the course of normal practice.”

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