Virtual reality is being used to test the driving skills of older people in rural NSW.
Trials are underway in Inverell, in the Northwest region of NSW, of a virtual reality driving simulator for older drivers, or Hector VR, which targets Australian motorists aged between 70 and 80.
Motorists in NSW are required to have a driving test every two years after turning 85.
The technology, developed by McLean Care and Deakin University, uses interactive virtual reality linked with smart sensor technology to expose drivers to simulated road scenarios while measuring their responses.
The VR system is the first of its kind to allow people to experience driving in a safe and controlled environment.
(L-R) Barnaby Joyce, Sue Thomson and Professor Ben Horan at the Hector launch
The simulator is contained inside the shell of a Holden Captiva car, creating a realistic situation where participants can actually get behind the wheel. Sensors measure data like reaction times and heart rate to assess how well ‘drivers’ cope with both common and unexpected road incidents experienced through a VR visor.
Navigating a virtual township
Users navigate their way through virtual scenarios modelled on the township of Inverell complete with local buildings, shops and other landmarks. The simulator also presents them with a variety of roads, traffic levels and infrastructure including pedestrian crossings and roundabouts.
Along the way the device gathers data on reaction times, stopping, giving way, turning at T-intersections, staying in a lane, indicating, observing speed limits and responding to unexpected hazards.
“Our simulator provides objective information about their driving in a safe and supported environment,” McLean Care CEO Sue Thomson says.
Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Ken Wyatt says Hector can help older drivers keep up their driving skills as well as measuring their proficiency and safety on the road.
“Hector VR supports people to maintain their proficiency on the road and can be used to test driving skills, to help them decide if they should stay behind the wheel,” he said in a statement.
“The thought of giving up your license and the extra independence that comes with driving yourself can be daunting for people as they age, particularly for those in rural and regional areas.”
The technology can also give older people with dementia or other medical conditions that have stopped them driving an opportunity to once again experience the enjoyment, independence and freedom of being in the drivers seat.
The $726,000 project is funded through the government’s $34 million Dementia and Aged Care Services grants scheme.
Introductory sessions were held in Tamworth and Inverell in June.