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SFU psychology professor Tom Spalek prepares to hit the road in his lab's new driving simulator.

SFU psychology professor Tom Spalek prepares to hit the road in his lab's new driving simulator.

Getting behind the virtual wheel

January 25, 2007

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In Tom Spalek's new lab, drivers buckle up and hit a virtual highway. As they travel, researchers observe their stress levels, decision-making patterns and factors that prompt safe or aggressive driving—even road rage.

The subjects are behind the wheel of a driving simulator, though the effect seems real enough from inside the device—in the driver's seat of a partial Ford Focus—as life-size driving scenes unfold around it.

The simulator, produced by U.S.-based DriveSafety Inc. and housed in SFU's psychology department, is one of a few in Canada. It can be used with other equipment designed to track eye movement or measure brain activity.

"Most investigations of cognitive phenomena have used very simple and artificial stimuli," says Spalek, an SFU professor of psychology.

"Yet from this data we attempt to develop theories designed to explain our attentional interactions with the world. The critical question is, how well do these findings relate to everyday activities?"

Using the simulator, researchers can study attention phenomena in more realistic situations by setting driving scenarios from a library of roads, vehicles and traffic patterns. They can then see how factors such as age and task division affect driving performance, and how devices such as GPS displays or DVD players affect driving efficiency—information of interest to organizations concerned with improving traffic safety.

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