"Virtual reality makes it possible for individuals to visualize the consequences of their decisions in a dangerous situation and assess the risk"

Janina Cavalcanti
Juan F. Samaniego
Janaina Cavalcanti is a doctoral student at the Universitat Politècnica de València (UPV) and visiting researcher at the eHealth Lab, a research group connected to the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya's (UOC) eHealth Center and Faculty of Health Sciences.
Janaina Cavalcanti, visiting researcher at the eHealth Lab and doctoral student at the Universitat Politècnica de València (UPV)


As she progresses towards completion of her doctoral thesis, which she plans to submit next year, Janaina Cavalcanti has just published a study on gamification applied to occupational risk prevention in which she explores the interaction between virtual reality technologies, games and health. A doctoral student at the UPV, Cavalcanti did a research stay at the UOC's eHealth Lab during the second semester of 2022.

What are the advantages of gamification when applied to occupational risk prevention?

One of the most important tools for risk prevention is education and training. However, its current format has been proven to have limited efficiency, as it doesn't achieve its objective. So it's important to update safety and accident prevention training tools in order to try to improve them.

Gamification is an active methodology that comes from games and video games. In recent years, these techniques have started to become an important tool for training and learning, as they provide new strategies to improve the level of motivation and participation. In fact, it can be argued that game mechanics are linked to human desires, challenges, rewards, status, competition, success and self-expression.

So the use of gamification and virtual reality in occupational health and safety training allows a higher degree of learning, as it provides interaction, the production of action-filled sequences, and motivation.

How can an immersive virtual reality game improve the health of workers?

One of the challenges the industry faces in improving workplace safety practices is transferring the knowledge gained from past experiences to people who haven't witnessed workplace incidents and, as a result, may not recognize the potential harm associated with workplace hazards.

Immersive virtual reality, i.e. where information is presented to the user in a 360-degree view, can give users a strong sense of presence, a feeling of being more inside the virtual environment than the real environment. This makes it possible for them to visualize and analyse the consequences of their own decisions in a hazardous situation and thus to assess the risk associated with each decision. 

What are the advantages for organizations of adopting this type of tool?

The main advantage is the reduction of occupational accidents, thanks to effective training. That alone is enough when you consider that every three and a half seconds a European worker is forced to stay at home for at least three days because they have been involved in an occupational accident. In addition, the emotional and financial costs of such incidents must be taken into account. And there are even more shocking figures: in Spain alone, 611 lives have been directly cut short by occupational accidents in the last year.

Unlike video-based education and training, gamification and virtual reality provide companies with flexible, effective and efficient tools that can be adapted to different user profiles and levels.

In the latest article you published, you tested a specific solution to measure potential differences in perception, behaviour and different variable signals according to the hazard level. What were the conclusions?

This study sought to compare how the use of signalling technologies can contribute to human decision-making and behaviour in a stressful situation. We evaluated the use of intermittent and smart signalling technologies alongside the usual static signalling systems.

The results showed that the use of flashing signals produces a high level of perception. So in situations of obvious danger, the use of flashing technology should be prioritized. The use of pictograms was also confirmed to be more efficient and effective. In other words, in a situation where every second counts, priority should be given to the use of images over text. 

And what elements could improve the design of a virtual environment for risk prevention?

A very important point is to try to immerse the individual in a situation similar to a hazard. This means trying to stimulate the emotions, feelings and sensations that users face when they find themselves in a situation where their decision and the time it takes to make it directly interfere with the result obtained. This is where the most common health and safety training falls short: it doesn't prepare individuals to deal with danger, the cognitive load of the situation, the elements of distraction and their own emotions.

Therefore, the virtual environment mustn't be neutral; it must convey some emotion to the user. In other words, the environment must simulate a place, a situation that the user can identify and believe could actually happen at some point. It should be kept in mind that we're talking about risk prevention training, but for other purposes it may be better to create an imaginary environment that is less associated with reality. For example, to encourage children to get vaccinated, a virtual environment was created in which the child becomes a superhero fighting against the disease after getting vaccinated.

Other key factors when designing a virtual environment for risk prevention are those usually considered in virtual environments in general, such as aligning interface development and usability techniques with the user, giving preference to large environments, or having content and a narrative. It's important to always remember that the environment should be made for people; therefore, their opinions, characteristics, desires, safety and integrity should be taken into account.

What are the next steps in the research?

I'll defend the thesis at the beginning of next year. In addition, together with faculty members Alejandro Ríos and Nuria Pelechano from the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC), we're designing experiments that will be used to investigate the effect that the signalling of a virtual environment with more people has on participants. These experiments will allow us to analyse how users respond to different signalling configurations in a crowded environment.

What are the challenges of applying virtual reality and gamification tools in occupational risk prevention?

In my opinion, the biggest challenge facing virtual reality, gamification and any new technology or methodology is the fear of taking a risk with something new, because of the uncertainty of whether there's a lack of information or gaps in the knowledge or technology. But these technologies are gaining ground in our society and, when they are around us, we can clearly see their benefits. There's another challenge that's more technological: currently, the use of immersive virtual reality with more than one user is still underdeveloped.

What made you decide to do a research stay at the UOC's eHealth Lab?

Last year I had an experience at the Ministry of Health in my country and I realized how important the use of technology is in the field of healthcare. I know it seems like an obvious thing to say, but witnessing this reality in the healthcare environment I realized how ICT and eHealth are essential for improving the health and quality of life of patients and healthcare professionals.

After noticing this importance, I decided that I had to contribute in some way to digital health. With the support of the Government of Valencia with the University Junior International Entrepreneurs programme and Ideas UPV, I'm here learning a lot about the design and evaluation of digital solutions for health promotion, disease prevention and medical interventions, while always keeping strong focus on safety. In return, I bring usability research, which integrates users into the product creation process.

In addition to extensive academic experience, you have also worked in risk management in the field. What did you gain from this more practical experience?

The experience focused on process risk and managing the integrity of a unit in general. It made me realize that safety has to be worked on as a whole, not from the point of view of a single element. It's true that somebody may be appointed to focus on the details, but we all have an important role to play.