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Is Virtual Reality the Future of Water Safety Education?

After a horrific 10 years of fatal drownings, virtual reality holds new hope for Victoria's inland waterways. Joshua Sabini and Ben Thompson report.

Drownings in Victoria’s inland waterways are at an all-time high, according to new research. “2021 was awful. 15 children up to 14 years old drowned, which is incredibly tragic,” Dr Hannah Calverley, Life Saving Victoria’s Research and Evaluation Manager says.

A child, wearing a VR headset, stands on a beach near a person wearing a Life Saving Victoria uniform.
Life Saving Victoria is using VR to immerse children in learning. Supplied: Life Saving Victoria.

A report released by Royal Life Saving Australia in February 2023 found that fatal drownings in Victoria’s inland waterways have skyrocketed over the last 10 years, with 157 swimmers losing their lives. Inland drownings account for 35 per cent of all drowning deaths in the state.

But virtual reality (VR) technology holds promise for improving education and curbing the grim statistics. Dr Paola Ariaza Alba, a cognitive and behavioural scientist at Liminal VR, is working with Royal Life Saving Victoria to pioneer the use of VR in educational programs aimed at kids. The aquatic safety program, which uses 360-degree videos, aims to immerse children in virtual environments that simulate real-world scenarios. “We used VR to simulate that they were inside the water and how it works being inside a rip," Dr Ariaza Alba explained. “You cannot feel it, but you can see it.”

The training puts children in a simulated environment to teach them the dangers of open waters and how to spot risks. Liminal VR is also working on a simulation called a 'dry swimming trainer' – a gamified aid that helps teach children the techniques of swimming, without getting into a pool. Additional programs allow learners to visit inland waterways, beaches and pools, or hear a First Nations elder speak about connections to country in these locations.

Grace Strugnell, Research and Projects Specialist at Life Saving Victoria, says the program has enjoyed strong engagement from the child learners. “We find children around that late primary school, early high school age really want to use the technology,” she says. “Technology is a part of their lives, and they are used to receiving information through it.”

Dr Azaria Alba saay that the results of VR learning can even last longer than other forms of learning. In comparison with in-person talks, a staple of Life Saving Victoria's education program, VR learners perform better when tested. “What we found was really good results for VR in comparison to the other presentations, being more engaging for the students,” she says. “Every form had an increase in learning but with the VR we found that the learning lasted longer than other ways of training the kids.”

While the program received positive responses from students Dr Araiza Alba admits that there are limitations to the VR component of the education. “One of the limitations is we are unable to test the behavioural change or the behavioural learning after this, so we don’t know,” she says. “What we did was try to test the learning through a questionnaire which is obviously not the same as a behavioural test.

Dr Azaria Alba concedes that in some circumstances, the VR program is a complement to other kinds of training, not a direct substitute. This is the case for Vicotoria's Bush Nippers program, is inspired by the well-known coastal Nippers programs that have been running around the country since 1961. In rural communities where face-to-face learning can be less accessible, the VR program offers unique affordances, and Dr Azaria Alba acknowledges that this was one of the program's objectives.

But it's not just accessibility that sets the VR program apart; its focus on the less-well-known dangers of inland waterways is also unique. Whereas knowledge of the existence of rogue waves, rips and channels are common for beach-goers, inland swimmers are often lured by the appearance of calmer waters, and fail to recognise the hazards common to these settings. These can include extremely cold water, strong currents, snags in the water, fallen trees and slippery or loose banks. “People often just talk about the beach and rips, but there are so many hidden dangers, and perceptions of the public as well, around the inland waterways being safer when they're riskier," says Dr Calverley.

A 2015 report on drowning prevention strategies by the International Life Saving Federation identified lack of water safety knowledge as a significant factor leading to a higher incidence of drowning deaths. The report suggests a mitigation strategy including education and locally-available information. Dr Calverley from Life Saving Victoria says education and awareness are drastically important. “When looking at drowning incidents that we see in [inland waterways], a lot of it comes down to lack of awareness of risk,” she says.

Nippers programs are proven to work in showing positive outcomes for water safety, and a 2021 study by Dr Calverly, Dr Strugnell and colleagues found that the Bush Nippers program was no different. The program also appeared to have strong community engagement, perhaps due to its novelty in inland settings. “It’s been a really great engagement piece for the community, there's been so much interest in it, and it just shows how much, tailored solutions are needed,” says Dr Calverley. She adds that engagement could be deepened by using a co-design framework. “We've got to think of creative solutions and involve children as well."

Dr Strugnell says those tailored solutions are especially important, given that the report found that 59 per cent of drowning victims in Victoria died within 20 kilometres of their homes. “Particularly, with regional communities we really want to tailor it for the community, get them involved, make them feel like they're a stakeholder in this, because at the end of the day, our research is for them,” she says. “We really care about them and want to see them take responsibility and ownership for their water safety and drowning prevention."

Inland waterways have many hidden dangers. Photo: Joshua Sabini


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