Those who find traipsing through Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside too nerve-racking of a task now have a safety net: They can simply hit the pause button.

A researcher at Simon Fraser University has mapped Canada's poorest neighbourhood onto his Nintendo Wii and created a playable virtual environment, complete with darkened alleys and threatening characters.

"We are using video game technologies to create a virtual environment that resembles Vancouver's Downtown Eastside for criminology research studies," Andrew Park said in an interview.

Park had 60 participants walk through the virtual environment using the Wii's sensor-laden balance board and controller. The goal, he said, was to gauge their fear of and reactions to crime in the troubled neighbourhood.

Some of Park's findings confirmed past social science research studies. Women, for example, were generally found to be more fearful than men in threatening situations.

But some of the other findings, Park said, took him by surprise.

"We found many new things. For example, the background of the streets. If people see deserted or abandoned buildings, then they don't want to go to that area," he said.

Park said some participants were unwilling to walk down alleys, instead choosing to stick to wider streets.

"And also, people are very concerned about the individuals on the street. If an individual is very clean, they have no fear. But if people are dirty, they want to avoid those people," he said.

Park developed his virtual environment by trudging through the Downtown Eastside and snapping photos. He spent one year mapping his pictures onto three-dimensional models using game-design software.

Virtual environments, he said, are becoming increasingly useful because they allow researchers to study potentially dangerous areas without subjecting participants to any sort of risk.

Jeremiah Spence, founder and editor of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, agreed that virtual environments provide many benefits.

"Virtual worlds are powerful tools to facilitate experiments and experiences that are exceedingly difficult to create outside of a virtual world," Spence said in an email interview.

"Virtual worlds are useful tools for creating an immersive interpersonal communications experience in much the same way as bulletin boards, chat rooms, instant messaging and social networks have done in the past."

Spence, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin, said the groundwork for his online journal was laid during a trip to a Vancouver Island conference in 2007. The journal has published five issues to date.

Spence described Park's work as "fascinating."

"The research potential of intersecting virtual worlds with the modeling of complex social systems is significant, and could potentially contribute to a number of breakthroughs in the areas of urban planning and law enforcement," he said.

Nicolas Georganas, an engineering professor at the University of Ottawa who's worked extensively with virtual environments over the last decade, said such worlds offer many benefits.

"For medical training, there are medical-training simulators extensively used now. There are defence-training simulators," he said.

"And there are now simulators that are used in psychology for treating phobias. So virtual reality has become now a standard tool for many applications."

Georganas started using virtual environments in his laboratory in 1997 and said important advances have been made in the field since.

"(Surgeons) can train people in a much friendlier way, without using cadavers, without using animal eyes or animal parts," he said.

"They can use just the computer with a device that emulates touch and be able to train."

Georganas hailed the Wii for having a revolutionary interface. The system was introduced by Nintendo in 2006 and uses motion-sensing technology that allows players to control games through gestures.

"It is moving now beyond games. It is becoming a standard interface for the real world," he said.

The Downtown Eastside is Vancouver's oldest neighbourhood and homelessness runs rampant through the 10-block area. More than 5,000 drug users reside in the neighbourhood, which features North America's only safe injection drug clinic.

Laura Track, a lawyer who operates out of the Downtown Eastside for the non-profit Pivot Legal Society, said she hopes some good comes from Park's project.

"One thing I'm interested in understanding better is about people's perceptions of this neighbourhood and if it can be used as a way of opening people's eyes to the beauty that exists here, the community that exists here," she said.

"It's not a scary place to be. People are in large part very friendly, they look out for each other, there's a real sense of community. I think it could be positive."

Track said those who experience the virtual environment might well want to visit the real one.

"You might discover some of the amazing little gems that exist here. I don't know how many people know there are a couple of community gardens in the Downtown Eastside," she said.

"If you're strolling through this virtual environment and you stumble into one of these beautiful vegetable gardens, I would imagine that might change your perspective a little bit."

Park said that perspective depends on the individual.

One study participant who had his camera stolen during a real-life trip to the Downtown Eastside expressed great fear during his navigation through the virtual environment.

Another participant who worked as a security guard in the real-life neighbourhood wasn't at all concerned during the virtual walk.

Park said he plans to continue working on the virtual environment and hopes to improve it. He foresees a virtual world in which participants can enter the different buildings and have unique interactions with the on-screen characters.

He's also working on another virtual environment of Vancouver's Chinatown that would test the area's walkability for senior citizens.

Like Track, Park says he's just hoping some good comes from his work.

"I want to see my research have a positive impact on society, where I live."