Balancing Virtual with Reality: Simulator Sickness Can Be Avoided

BY TERRY L. VON THADEN, TAL PRENDERGAST, AND JACOB HUTCHCRAFT

As more departments use high-fidelity simulation for driver training, the dread of simulator sickness begins to set in among participants. By proactively addressing the issue, you can avoid Simulator Adaptation Syndrome, leading to maximum utilization of valuable driving simulator training time.

The Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI) recently put into service its Driver Readiness Interactive Vehicle Experience (DRIVE) program. The program is designed to allow students of various background levels to develop their capabilities and decision-making skills through realistic simulated driving training exercises and operational experiences. The simulator moves methodically on a continuous basis throughout the state with IFSI instructors providing successive level courses throughout the year. As the IFSI put the trailer into service, instructors were concerned that the state-of-the-art high-fidelity simulations and immersive exposure may cause simulator sickness among participants and reduce their learning experiences and enjoyment of the beneficial technology.

SIMULATOR ADAPTATION SYNDROME

Simulator Adaptation Syndrome (SAS), or simulator sickness, is a form of physiological discomfort similar to motion sickness. The experience is not new; and, in fact, visually induced motion sickness has been around since some of the original use of simulation training in aviation in the 1950s. A consequence of visual processing, it emerges as a result of perceived motion or the signal of movement. Its symptoms can include nausea, headache, disorientation, and cold sweats, to name a few.

Whether or not you are susceptible depends on your individual constitution and your exposure to the virtual world. Susceptibility to SAS can be increased through factors such as stress, fatigue, anxiety, dehydration, medication, and vision problems. Older individuals may be affected more than younger, and those with more driving experience may have a harder time adapting to high-fidelity simulation.

A consequence of visual processing, simulation adaptation syndrome emerges as a result of perceived motion or the signal of movement. Its symptoms can include nausea, headache, disorientation, and cold sweats, to name a few.

1 A consequence of visual processing, simulation adaptation syndrome emerges as a result of perceived motion or the signal of movement. Its symptoms can include nausea, headache, disorientation, and cold sweats, to name a few. (Photo courtesy of the Illinois Fire Service Institute.)

Anyone can succumb to the effects of SAS; it’s not reflective of personal weakness. According to studies, approximately 10 to 20 percent of the population can experience incapacitating symptoms in driving simulators, approximately 30 to 50 percent of the population can experience moderate symptoms, and approximately 40 to 60 percent of older/experienced drivers can experience some symptoms. The good news is that these numbers can be significantly reduced to approximately five percent of the population by taking simple, preventive measures.

PREVENTING SAS

Preventive measures include a familiarization drive with no complexities, controlling the temperature in the simulator, adequate hydration, directed airflow, and reduced lighting, to name a few. The IFSI developed a strategy to begin each training session with a simple acclimation drive and if instructors noticed someone experiencing even slight symptomology, they took corrective measures depending on their indicators (i.e., adjust airflow, hydrate, take an outdoor break, etc.).

To measure the adequacy of their observations, instructors took advantage of a well-researched Simulator Sickness Questionnaire to measure participants’ physiological sensitivity to simulated training. Critics of this method suggest that educating people in SAS and assessing symptoms prior to exposure call attention to the negative symptoms associated with high-fidelity training and leave participants hypersensitive to even slight discomfort—even the slightest bit of uneasiness would be seen as a negative reaction to a simulation. This has not been IFSI’s experience.

In the early weeks of administering the training program, instructors assessed symptoms of simulator sickness before exposure, directly after an acclimation drive, and after the training session. If a participant experienced mild or moderate symptoms post acclimation drive, instructors implemented easy corrective measures.

Of the 40 participants from whom the IFSI received feedback, only one felt the need to stop the simulation after 15 minutes, and he had reported feeling symptoms of dizziness and fatigue prior to exposure. One other participant reported experiencing symptoms of lightheadedness on the post measurement but did not feel the need to stop the training session. All other participants reported mild to no symptoms after the training session.

The IFSI is continuing to collect more data in training sessions throughout the state to provide accurate information about the absence or prevalence of simulator sickness experienced during emergency vehicle training. So far, the IFSI’s experience is proving that an ounce of prevention allows students to experience the maximum benefit of their valuable simulator training time.


TERRY L. VON THADEN, PhD, is a human factors research scientist at the Illinois Fire Service Institute, with faculty appointments in industrial and enterprise systems engineering and psychology.

TAL PRENDERGAST began his fire service career in 1996 and is on the Urbana (IL) Fire Department. He is the driver/operator program director at the Illinois Fire Service Institute.

JACOB HUTCHCRAFT began his fire service career in 2007. He is on the Urbana (IL) Fire Department. He is the apparatus driver program manager at the Illinois Fire Service Institute.

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