Exploring New Roads with Virtual Reality

Oct 20, 2017
Erin Howe

DriverLabDriverLab is the most advanced driving simulator in Canada and one of the top in the world. Deep below street level, a state-of-the-art simulator gives University of Toronto researchers new insight into keeping drivers on the roads above safe.

DriverLab is the only simulator of its kind in Canada and offers a safe way to study a range of human variables in realistic traffic and weather conditions. It’s housed in the iDAPT Centre for Rehabilitation Research’s Challenging Environment Assessment Labs (CEAL) in the basement of Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.

An Audi A3 sits on a turntable in the centre of the simulator — a 6 metre-square sphere called a payload built on a hydraulic motion platform. Just like being on a real road, drivers using the simulator can feel bumps in the pavement or air turbulence from a passing transport truck. The car is surrounded by images cast by stereoscopic projectors that create driving scenarios from quiet residential streets to bustling highways and country roads.

The simulator is also the first in the world to offer realistic reproductions of headlight glare and rain. It can also mimic the experience of driving through ice and snow. Researchers can also program other obstacles into the simulation like a child running into the street.

“What we learn here could pave the way to help seniors maintain the ability to drive through something like a conditional license that would allow them to drive on city streets during the day. We’re also looking into whether cars should be equipped to recognize drowsiness in the driver and respond by turning the radio up or rolling down the windows to keep the driver awake,” says Geoff Fernie, a professor in the Department of Surgery and Toronto Rehabilitation Research Institute Director.

Researchers will also look to answer questions about the safety of driving while using medication — what dosages are safe and how much time needs to pass before someone gets behind the wheel?

Questions about the ways people interact with semi-autonomous vehicle features and driverless cars will be explored, too.

Most of what’s currently known about how different health conditions and circumstances affect driving has been done in a clinical setting. Road tests have traditionally been done on clear days in safe environments.  

Fernie also says DriverLab also differs from other simulators because it was built specifically to test people, rather than to help car makers improve their designs or study the driving experience.

DriveLab is one of eight simulators at CEAL, which has a record of moving its research into the real world. The group often partners with existing companies and has also started its own companies to commercialize their innovations.

“Anything that gets the results of the research out so people can actually use it,” says Fernie who is also a member of the Graduate Department of Rehabilitation Science and is cross-appointed to the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering.

In 2015, a team studying stair safety in StairLab provided evidence used to change Canadian building codes.

Informed by findings from WinterLab, with its freezing temperatures, ice floor and tilting platform, CEAL researchers made a list of recommended winter boots last year — and changed Canadians’ footwear buying patterns.

“All the shoes we recommended were sold out by Christmas,” says Fernie. “This year, the retailers are coming to us to check their supplies before they put them on the market. We also have some new pairs of footwear being produced that are much better traction than they were last year.”

iDAPT includes scientists from a wide range of disciplines. About 60 per cent of its researchers are clinicians in specialities of every kind. Another third are engineers and computer scientists. The centre also attracts researchers in business studies and innovation management.

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