Due to their strong immersion and real-time interactivity, helmet-mounted virtual reality (VR) devices are becoming increasingly popular. Based on these devices, an immersive virtual geographic environment (VGE) provides a promising method for research into crowd behavior in an emergency. However, the current cheaper helmet-mounted VR devices are not popular enough, and will continue to coexist with personal computer (PC)-based systems for a long time. Therefore, a heterogeneous distributed virtual geographic environment (HDVGE) could be a feasible solution to the heterogeneous problems caused by various types of clients, and support the implementation of spatiotemporal crowd behavior experiments with large numbers of concurrent participants. In this study, we developed an HDVGE framework, and put forward a set of design principles to define the similarities between the real world and the VGE. We discussed the HDVGE architecture, and proposed an abstract interaction layer, a protocol-based interaction algorithm, and an adjusted dead reckoning algorithm to solve the heterogeneous distributed problems. We then implemented an HDVGE prototype system focusing on subway fire evacuation experiments. Two types of clients are considered in the system: PC, and all-in-one VR. Finally, we evaluated the performances of the prototype system and the key algorithms. The results showed that in a low-latency local area network (LAN) environment, the prototype system can smoothly support 90 concurrent users consisting of PC and all-in-one VR clients. HDVGE provides a feasible solution for studying not only spatiotemporal crowd behaviors in normal conditions, but also evacuation behaviors in emergency conditions such as fires and earthquakes. HDVGE could also serve as a new means of obtaining observational data about individual and group behavior in support of human geography research.
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