ORNL-developed AR tool will help workers “see” radiation

May 8, 2023, 9:30AMNuclear News
A still image from an ORNL video demonstrating the VIPER technology. (Credit: ORNL)

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory developed a method of using augmented reality (AR) to create accurate visual representations of ionizing radiation, and that technology has just been licensed by Teletrix, a Pittsburgh, Pa.-based firm that develops simulators to train radiological workers and radiological control technicians. ORNL announced the news on May 4.

The invention team included, from left, Michael Smith, Scott Greenwood, Douglas Peplow, and Noel Nelson. (Photo: Carlos Jones/ORNL)

Created at ORNL: A staff team at ORNL originally created the virtual interaction with physics-enhanced reality, or VIPER, application. Using simulated radiation data and a gaming platform, the technology divides a physical space into cubes, each with a volumetric value of ionizing radiation by dose. That data is used to create a 3D image of gradient contours that is overlaid on a real-world view through an AR headset. A person wearing the headset can move through a physical space with visual awareness of the contours, and as they move, the device can calculate simulated, real-time exposure based on their movements. A video posted by ORNL last year demonstrates the use of the technology in a lab setting.

“We combined physics-based data with a gaming interface that provides a visual platform to make something invisible look and feel real—we took science and cinematography and brought them together,” said Michael Smith, a nuclear space systems engineer at ORNL and a member of the development team.

That team included ORNL’s Noel Nelson and Douglas Peplow of the Nuclear Energy and Fuel Cycle Division and former ORNL researchers M. Scott Greenwood and Nicholas Thompson. The technology began as a one-year seed project funded under ORNL’s Lab Directed Research and Development program, with significant support from the lab’s Nuclear and Radiological Protection Division, according to ORNL.

The need to see: “When it comes to training with ionizing radiation, [AR] is a superior and safer solution,” Smith said. “Our team was at the right place at the right time to develop this technology. There was a synergy of hardware and software maturity coupled with an idea that’s been around a long time—the need to see ionizing radiation.”

“Just by having a general impression of the spatial relationship of your body in a given radiation environment, you can decrease your overall dose based on really fundamental behavioral changes,” Smith added. “We can't see ionizing radiation, so you just walk right through it. But once you have seen what the radiation in your working environment looks like, you can't unsee it. AR provides a means to train people to have a better visceral understanding of how ionizing radiation behaves.”

Smith said the development team envisioned three applications for the ORNL technology, including the following:

  • Radiological survey—For routine radiological surveys by a radiological control technician when the radiation source location is known, both to simulate real-time detector measurements and to record data from actual occupational use by personnel regularly engaged in radiation surveys.
  • Radiation source search—For cases in which the radiation source location is unknown, to take real-time detector data, map the location of personnel, and rapidly communicate visual and spatial radiation data to individuals or to groups of radiological personnel in search of an unknown radiation source.
  • Radiological workflow—For training radiological workers who are in similar radiation environments daily but may have limited knowledge about the spatial characteristics of the hazards of known sources.

Teletrix sees synergies: Teletrix produces its own products that are used by utilities, emergency response organizations, and government agencies, and according to ORNL the lab is one of its customers. One of Teletrix’s products is VIZRAD, a virtual reality software system that simulates contamination on individuals and workspaces and trains a user to properly scan someone with a detector by providing objective feedback on technique.

“When I put the AR glasses on, it was obvious that ORNL’s technology and Teletrix’s tools were a great fit,” said Jason O’Connell, sales and business development manager for Teletrix. “Through the headset and the AR technology, we have the ability to track a person’s exact location within a room and inject source information into the room. . . . Having much more realistic readings on your instruments leads to better-prepared employees, better prepared trainees, fewer incidents—this technology will help make people in this industry safer.”

According to ORNL, performance data collected from about 40 participants showed “statistically significant behavioral changes after minimal training with AR representations of radiation fields.” ORNL staff experimentally validated the method of coupling AR technologies with accurate radiation measurements in a study using cesium-137 in ORNL’s Nuclear Radiation Protection Division demonstration facility.


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