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VR: how to prototype for a world that doesn't exist yet

Driverless cars have the potential to completely disrupt the way we get from point A to point B, not just as passengers, but also as pedestrians. Imagine how the act of crossing the road might change when the social, human-to-human, pedestrian-to-driver dynamic is taken away. 

To prepare ourselves for this future, we'll need to understand how peoples' behaviour will change, not only so that we can program automated vehicles to react accordingly, but also to better educate pedestrians on how to be safe in, and make the most of, this new world.

So how do we test our theories on a driverless future without expensively re-creating what that might look like?

The linked article raises some interesting points around how this future might work for pedestrians as they prototype and test potential solutions. Give it a read and check out some of their insights, but the thing I want to focus on, in particular, is their use of VR to prototype.

You can see in one of their examples, there's a marked difference in the way test subjects behave when you compare a test with a full-scale, static, physical prototype, with a test using a VR simulation.

The VR prototype is by no means realistic, but it's immersive enough to make subjects panic a little when standing in the way of a high-speed four-wheel block. It allows the testers to gain a whole new level of understanding and empathy for the users. It also allows the users to react more naturally to a situation instead of simply imagining it (because, if you're told to imagine the stationary block in front of you is a car travelling at you at 50kph, would your heart actually skip a beat, or would you pretend your heart is skipping a beat?)

This is something we've experienced in our own work as well, most notably when we helped design and build Lumaten's VR testing tool, Shopper 360. A tool for the retail space, it allows retailers to test, for example, shelf arrangements without going through the costly, time-consuming task of arranging physical shelves for testing purposes; with the added benefit of having more thorough data such as accurate gaze patterns and heat maps compared to simply relying on observations.

As a means for cost-effective and accurate testing of situations that don't physically exist (or would be too expensive to recreate) VR is a game-changing technology.

Autonomous vehicles will no doubt bring changes to urban infrastructure. However people will still rely on cognitive, environmental, and instructional cues when crossing the road. Using our VR prototype, we tested three crossing scenarios that would require various combinations of cues along with different types of crosswalks that will exist in a driverless future

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