Immersive VR experience teaches parasite prevention measures

Users are put into a camping scenario where the challenge is to stop themselves from being infected by a parasite.

A new virtual reality experience is teaching users how to take preventative measures to avoid parasite infection while they are immersed in a camping scenario in the wilderness of northern Australia.

The tool was developed by Federation University veterinary bioscience researcher Dr Sarah Preston and technical officer Evan Dekker and will be showcased at Auckland Zoo at The Australian Society for Parasitology's (ASP) annual conference in August. The conference highlights the latest research and technologies in parasitology.

The hand-tracked VR experience requires users to navigate common camping requirements, including taking preventive measures to avoid parasite infections, with tasks including boiling water and cooking food for safe consumption, protecting against mosquitoes, and performing parasite treatment in pets.

The idea for the experience was pitched by parasitology PhD students and developed by Dr Preston and Mr Dekker with funding contributed by the ASP.

The tool is free for anyone to download and extends the work previously completed for the ParasitesVR experience. That tool — designed for a tertiary veterinary setting — featured a cow, allowing students to explore the parasites within the animal's organs and 'treat' the cow with the appropriate treatment, simulating what a farmer would do.

"We began developing these modules for teaching parasite theory in the Bachelor of Veterinary and Wildlife Science degree, and the beauty of using VR is that you can show things that you wouldn't be able to in reality — this is not something we can do in a classroom," Dr Preston said.

"This module is now being used by the University of Sydney and ANU and we extended that experience to include a horse for the students to study."

The idea for the latest version came after they presented to a workshop in Queensland about using VR in teaching. The students in the workshop developed the theme — prevention is better than a cure — coming up with a camping scenario in which the challenge is to stop the campers from getting infected by a parasite.

The idea was taken to the ASP which contributed funding to develop the project.

Mr Dekker, who has a background in IT and an interest in VR, says he had no prior knowledge of parasitology but enjoys developing experiences from which people can get learning experiences.

"With this latest experience, I was keen to take advantage of the hand tracking capabilities — this uses no controllers at all — it tracks exactly what your hands are doing which is what the latest VR systems are doing," he said.

He says the funding contributed to the purchase of the objects and models used in the app, and he has developed the programming to make it interactive and to make users feel like they are in a camping scene. The scene even features an AI-generated dog that responds to whistles.

"I have a passion for taking new and novel things that are a bit gimmicky and really trying to find out how they can be useful in their own unique way," he said.

"VR can basically simulate anything. If there are scenarios that are too expensive or too dangerous to do, it's really useful in that instance. Other VR experiences being developed are in mining engineering where they are setting charges – potentially dangerous situations when they are done for real." Evan Dekker

Participants are given a series of tasks, including pouring water from a kettle into a cup, and if the water is drunk before being boiled, the drinker gets ill and has to restart.

"But if you use the matches to light the fire that the kettle is on, the kettle whistles when the water boils and you can drink it safely," he said.

"Similarly, when catching a fish, if it's eaten raw, you will get sick, but if you use a frying pan or put the fish directly on the fire, it will cook and can be eaten. And there are mosquitoes flying around, so you need to spray them.

"Along the way, there's a checklist of things to do so there's a degree of gamification in there in attaining these goals."

Dr Preston says the broader focus of the app meant it was ideal for public outreach.

"The previous experience was focused on parasites in farm animals, so very veterinary focused, whereas this one is for the general prevention against parasites. There are parasites in fish, dogs and mosquitoes that people can learn about," Dr Preston said.

"But we have used it in teaching recently as well, showing that if you keep your animals healthy and do the simple hygiene things well, you're taking steps to stay healthy as well, that sort of approach.

"It's fun and you can build in learning experiences, which is great for teaching and getting students involved."

For VR experience outreach workshop inquiries, contact Dr Sarah Preston.

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