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Professor Hoping To Save Lives With Rip Current Virtual Reality Simulator

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Virtual reality could help save real lives on the beach.

A virtual reality program simulates what it's like to be caught in a rip current. (Credit: CBS2)

Swimming out of rip current can sometimes be easier said than done, but virtual reality at the beach is helping people experience that first hand, safely, CBS2's Dick Brennan reports.

"I feel like I'm in it," Sabina Goldstein, 28, said.

Goldstein has lived on Long Island her whole life, but the avid beach-goer admits she had no idea how to escape a rip current.

"I went to, like, camp growing up and I had swimming lessons and everything, and I never knew this," she said.

Now, thanks to virtual reality, the Merrick woman is primed for whatever comes her way while swimming in the ocean.

"You never know when it'll happen," she said.

RELATED STORY: Woman's Drowning Death Prompts Launch Of Riptide Awareness Program

Just a few weeks after a woman died in a rip current off of Fire Island, Dr. Jace Bernhardt and his team have set up a virtual reality experience at Point Lookout beach, using technology to simulate what it's like to get caught in a rip current.

"Rip currents typically on the Atlantic beaches around New York, there's one or even multiple rip current fatalities in most given beach seasons, and many throughout the U.S., sometimes 50-100 in a given year, and obviously this is just very easily preventable," Bernhardt said.

Two years ago, the Hofstra University professor used similar technology to simulate how it feels to get caught in a hurricane.

A virtual reality program simulates what it's like to be caught in a rip current. (Credit: CBS2)

"We found that those who saw the VR simulation of the hurricane were more likely to take warnings seriously and take what we think, as meteorologists, are the proper actions," he said.

By wearing a headset and using joysticks, participants learn to safely swim parallel with the beach until they're free from the rip current. The simulator also reminds people not to panic and to signal for help from a lifeguard.

"It's a good way to put yourself in a situation where you might need saving without actually being put in danger," Zach Neman said.

"Some unsafe swimmers, who know what can happen out there?" Natalie Ferretti said.

After each simulation, the findings are recorded and reviewed, so the team could come back next year with a better understanding and a new reality.

The simulation will be set up at Point Lookout beach every Tuesday and Thursday until the end of the summer. They also plan on taking the technology to the Hamptons.

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