Simulator Puts Cognitive Researchers in the Driver’s Seat

Posted: May 7, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

How in control are you when answering your cell phone or checking your GPS device while driving? How much information can a person safely process on the road, and how much does the design of something influence how quickly you can use it?

Mason’s Psychology Department recently obtained a vehicle simulator that will help to answer some of those research questions and more. Designed specifically for Mason research by Realtime Technologies Inc., the simulator will be used by the department’s Arch Lab for a broad range of driver cognition and human factors research by faculty and students.

Graduate student in driving simulator
Graduate student David Kidd conducts research using the Psychology Department’s new driving simulator.

The simulator literally puts researchers in the driver’s seat, allowing for complete control over their projects. Professors and students have the ability to program different driving scenarios and to collect and measure data precisely for later analysis.

Psychology professor Chris Monk.
Psychology professor Chris Monk.
Photos by Evan Cantwell

Psychology faculty Christopher Monk and Maria Kozhevnikov were instrumental in bringing the simulator to campus. Monk, who received his PhD in Human Factors and Applied Cognition from Mason in 2004, spent more than a decade working as a human factors professional in the area of traffic safety for organizations such as the Federal Highway Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Kozhevnikov’s research focuses on individual differences in cognitive style, and how design of training and educational materials can be improved to accommodate these different learning styles.

The driving simulator uses an open-cockpit Ford Focus dashboard and controls and has three 42-inch, high-definition visual displays that allow for a 180-degree forward field of view. It is different from many other driving simulators in that the simulator can rotate, as well as pitch forward, more precisely, simulating actual movement and therefore reducing motion sickness for experimental participants.

Visually, the system can produce animated and static objects to make what the driver sees out the window seem very realistic. Audio software and hardware generate sounds that the driver would expect to hear, such as engine noise, wind, tire whine and sounds of other vehicles.

The driving simulator is just one of several pieces of equipment the department has obtained for cutting-edge research projects. A flight simulator in the Arch Lab allows graduate students to conduct research on the design of displays for pilot training. A virtual reality system allows researchers to investigate new methods for teaching physics concepts. The department also recently installed a new system for noninvasive recording of human brain electrical activity. The system allows for high-density mapping of the human brain during cognitive functioning.

“These new pieces of equipment will position Mason uniquely to collect data that address questions of importance for both basic and applied science,” says department chair Deborah Boehm-Davis.

Mason’s Psychology Department is one of the few departments in the country with a specialized focus on applied psychology. The department’s mission is to develop and apply psychology to enhance human potential through research-based practice and practice-informed research. Thus, its graduate programs are distinguished by an emphasis on basic research and the application of research to solving practical problems in families, schools, industry, government and health-care settings.

Research by faculty and students in the department is supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Army Research Lab and Boeing.

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