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Using virtual reality to help save lives in a real fire

It’s winter, it’s cold, and the laundry’s still wet, so you move it a little closer to the fireplace, just enough to get your clothes toasty warm in no time. You leave the room for the briefest of moments, and the next thing you know, you’re engulfed in a sea of flames. One minute the ceiling’s 30 degrees celsius; the next, it’s skyrocketed to a whopping 350. Your senses go into overdrive as fire crackles in your ear and smoke billows before your eyes. As panic swiftly sets in, what should you do?

Thankfully, you can relax, because the scenario is a fictional one that’s the basis for NZ Fire Service’s latest campaign, Escape My House. Through virtual reality technology and 360-degree video, the experience explores the shocking realities of escaping a house fire and includes features that demonstrate the emotional and psychological barriers that those caught in the event are often faced with. As users navigate the house, they’re encouraged to interact with the items they encounter (a games console, a photo album, a child’s soft toy) and try out various exits, several of which turn out to be inaccessible. A clock and two thermometers are displayed on the screen as well, ticking furiously upwards to stimulate a tangible sense of urgency, dread, fear and panic.

Although the experience can seem frightening, NZ Fire Service and FCB hope the end result will help save lives by triggering a shift in behaviour. FCB digital creative director, Matt Barnes, says VR was chosen as a way to tackle the passivity and detachment many feel about the possibility of being caught in a fire. 

“One of the major problems with making escape plans and installing smoke alarms is that people don’t really think it’s going to happen to them. There’s a real sense of apathy, and the best way to fix apathy is with empathy,” he says.

“We wanted to give people as real of an experience as we could and make it happen to them in a way that gets over that barrier of ‘It’ll never happen to me, I never have to worry about it’. We wanted to give people a bit of a shock-and-awe experience and make them think this was crazy and disorienting, rather thinking ‘I’ll be fine if I just run out the front door’. We’re trying to show people that that’s not always possible.”

Recently, a number of studies have been published touting the effectiveness of VR in instigating behavioural change, an act that requires self-reflectiveness, personal efficacy and transformative experiences in order to occur. AR and VR’s positive applications, according to the studies, are surprisingly diverse, ranging from creating empathy for conserving the environment to the treatment of eating disorders, obesity, anxiety and stress.

For FCB and NZ Fire Service, this isn’t the first time they’ve taken an innovative approach to educating New Zealanders on fire safety. Last year’s campaign highlighted the importance of smoke alarms through a newspaper ad that had been printed with a combination of ink and ash. The initiative used the remains of a South Auckland home and made an eerie point through a uniquely tactile experience. 

Barnes, who also leads the interactive projects team at FCB, says experiences are becoming an increasingly important way to tell stories, particularly those that have a public safety element to them. 

“I think when you add things beyond visual and aural inputs and add touch and interaction, it helps with that sense of disbelief. We’re looking at how we can do that across all our clients, and find out how we can create experiences rather than just tell people information,” he says.

“We’re trying to move beyond this traditional model of ‘tell’, where the next level after that is ‘show’ and the next level after that is ‘do-it-yourself’. That last one is probably where we want to get to, which is to have an idea that people can participate in.”

To complement the VR technology, FCB has also created an escape planning tool (set to go online next week) which guides users through their own homes to create a customised evacuation process.

“The planning tool is not that sexy, but that’s the part that will change people’s behaviour. Our goal is to get people to change their behaviour and the tool is what actually really helps you do it. It’s not as cool as being inside a [virtual reality] house fire, which is the bit that gets people’s interest, but it drives people to take action,” says Barnes.

To help people make the most of the VR experience, NZ Fire Service is also giving away 4500 Google Cardboard headsets. But Barnes stresses that the experience was designed to work both with or without headsets in order for everyone to get a full sense of what the initiative is like. 

“We’re quite conscious that the desktop and mobile experience is still immersive. It’s best experienced in VR, but we don’t feel like you get downgraded too much without a headset,” he says. “I like the desktop experience because you’ve got quite a big screen and the actual interaction is with your mouse which makes it easier to move around and click on things.”

Created in conjunction with production companies Kaleidoscope and Staples, the video itself was filmed in Palmerston North at a fire service training building late last year. The shoot initially attracted attention for its use of heat-proof GoPros, which were modified to be 360-degree capable and withstand up to 250 degrees of heat.

“We had 30 firemen and a whole lot of units and we were actually burning down a real house, which was fun but terrifying,” recalls Barnes. “We didn’t actually manage to save the cameras, but we did manage to save the cards in the cameras. The cameras themselves actually melted. It got pretty hot in there.

“We tried to get it as realistic as we possibly could. The alternative was to do it all in 3D, but we wanted to have a photographically real experience to really drive home that it could happen to you.”

While TVNZ is helping to get the word out about the project nationally, local fire services are also undertaking initiatives to complement the VR campaign. In Palmerston North, painted rocks will be dropped around the city as part of the Palmy Rocks project. People who find the Escape My House rocks can take them to the fire station where they can be traded in for a Google Cardboard headset.

This story first appeared at StopPress.
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