FEMA taps VR to bring flooding risks to life

The government agency teamed with Ogilvy and Brightline Interactive to develop the virtual reality program, called Immersed, for educating local officials.

A still from Immersed (via Ogilvy)
A still from Immersed (via Ogilvy)

WASHINGTON: FEMA has partnered with Ogilvy and Brightline Interactive to create a VR experience to drench local officials in a flood situation.

Called Immersed, it is the first large-scale VR program FEMA has developed. The emergency-management agency will take the platform around the country to community events and meetings and use an HTC Vive to show community leaders what can happen if a flood hits and how they can prepare.

"In terms of storytelling, we know that we can change behaviors when you're combining the analytic side of the brain with the emotional side," said Tony Silva, EVP and head of the social change group at Ogilvy. "We put them in this immersive storytelling where they can see it. It’s very real for them to see a community that looks like theirs underwater or to participate in clearing streets in this virtual environment."

The program puts the viewer in three flood situations: a flooded home, a washed-out road, or a rescue from the roof of a flooded building. The program plays through these scenarios, showing what happens to an unprepared community when a flood hits.

It then replays the three scenarios, showing the user how flood-mitigation steps could have prevented each situation. The program’s goal is to urge local officials to take steps to get prepared, like installing proper drainage systems or porous pavements in areas with a flood risk.

Immersed isn’t a simple 360-degree video, said Pete Nellius, lead creative technologist at Ogilvy. Users can act out scenarios in the virtual environment like directing traffic on a washed-out road or walking around a home flooded with three feet of water.  

"Not every community goes through flooding regularly, and people are good at putting off these sorts of mitigation actions because it doesn't seem immediate to them," Nellius said. "VR provides immersion in a way that is not possible with other technology."

Immersed is part of a larger community-engagement program on flood mitigation that also includes community meetings, informational materials, partnerships, and training sessions. The federal agency will begin taking the program to communities at the end of this month.

"Research is showing VR can be a powerful tool for impacting people’s perceptions and actions in the real world," the spokesperson said. "As we work with communities to help them become aware of their flood risks and to equip them with the skills and tools necessary to mitigate against them, Immersed makes that risk more real, and also lets users see first-hand the impact of taking mitigation actions."

Immersed is a component of FEMA’s Community Engagement and Risk Communications contract, which was awarded to Resilience Action Partners, a joint venture between Ogilvy Public Relations and Michael Baker International, FEMA said. Brightline Interactive, a Washington-based digital agency, has worked on flooding issues and partnered with Ogilvy to develop the VR program.

"In terms of behavioral change, when you’re watching a video on a computer screen, you're remembering the content in a different way than you would if you were standing in an environment flooding in reality," said Tyler Gates, principal at Brightline. "The experience the user gets standing inside [the virtual environment], where he or she can see 360 degrees in every direction, is significantly different in terms of their memory. They’re remembering it because they experienced it."

Compared with other methods of showing local leaders they’re at risk, like flood maps or videos, Nellius believes VR is much more effective at communicating that risk.

"There are a ton of associations, agencies, and companies looking to create positive change in communities," Nellius said, "VR is one of the many tools we have and it's an incredibly effective one for creating real behavior change."

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