Inspiration

Number and devastating impacts of natural disasters have grown significantly world-wide. Total cost of Hurricane Harvey is estimated in the range of $198 billion, surpassing the estimates for Hurricane Katrina’s damages [1]. Recent studies emphasize the importance of public awareness and training of first responders in disaster preparedness and response activities [2]. However, the strategy of increasing awareness of disaster risks in communities is not a complete solution. The likelihood and potential consequences of rare extreme events are likely to be underestimated by public [3].

Recent developments in web technologies allowed analysis, visualization, and communication of large-scale geo-spatial disaster and weather data and information in online systems [4]. Novel devices in virtual reality (VR), and advanced techniques in artificial intelligence (AI), and graphical processer units (GPU) makes it possible for state-of-the-art simulations of real-world physics and scenarios in affordable devices [5]. Benefiting from these developments, a virtual world can be created for public and professionals to immerse themselves into an environment to experience a disaster or extreme weather event. Using VR to simulate different scenarios provides a realistic and safe workspace that allows repetition and precise measurements while removing limitations and challenges of real-world training.

What it does

We present Flood Action VR, a multi-player and voice-enabled virtual reality gaming framework, with extensive data resources. Application supports different untethered and tethered virtual reality devices. Framework utilizes comprehensive real-time and historical weather and geographical datasets and employs gamification techniques to ensure an engaging and realistic experience. The framework provides extensive opportunities for accessibility, scalability, and adaptation to different use cases due to its global data support, utilization of dynamic geospatial datasets, immersive virtual reality models, capability to capture behavioral and psychological evaluation of the players, and potential to become a support tool for emergency responders and decision makers. Design goals of the framework is to serve as an engaging game to increase public awareness on disasters, an educational environment for K-12 and college students, a training platform for emergency responders, and a decision support tool for decision makers and scientists.

Main Contribution

Main contribution of this project is the development of a virtual reality framework that dynamically creates an immersive gaming environment for flood simulation by utilizing real-world environmental (i.e. hydrological, geographical, and meteorological) data. Moreover, the ability to interact with the system using natural language and multi-player support of the game allow the utilization of the framework as a training and behavioral analysis tool for first responders and public.

Implementation

The application is implemented in C# using a cross-platform and virtual reality enabled game engine (Unity3D). Unity3D is utilized due to its rich 3D resources, support for advanced physics, and mobile deployment and publishing capabilities. 3D components for terrain and critical infrastructures are modeled and constructed in ESRI City Engine and exported in FBX file format which then is imported in Unity3D for use in scene generation. The Flood Action VR supports Android operating system for use with Samsung Gear VR virtual reality headset. Additionally, application can support compatible standalone virtual reality headsets (i.e. Oculus Go) without any modification as they are binary compatible and have the same controller inputs [6]. Other virtual reality headsets can be supported as well by updating the interaction methods adhering to the user interface of the targeted device.

What's next for Flood Action VR

Acquiring building and structural data in global scale is limited to few selected regions. This challenge can be overcome by employing procedural methods to generate building models from footprints. Performance and runtime of rendering detailed 3D models in virtual reality mostly depends on the computational power of the client device. Currently, Flood Action VR limits the simulation area in any city to 1 km radius to minimize performance issues.

As a future work, materials used in the 3D models can be enhanced to feature different properties such as resistance, durability, and weight. These additions can allow the scene to dynamically change with respect to time. For example, columns of buildings or levees can be eroded by the excessive water flow and strong wind and eventually break down partially or completely. Robust AI approaches can be used to better simulate the behavior of the people who need assistance and rescue.

References

  1. Hicks, M., Burton, M., “Hurricane Harvey: Preliminary Estimates of Commercial and Public-Sector Damages on the Houston Metropolitan Area”, Ball State University, 2017
  2. Kapucu, N., "Collaborative emergency management: better community organizing, better public preparedness and response", Disasters 32.2: 239-262, 2008.
  3. Colin H. Green, S. M. Tunstall, & M. H. Fordham. "The risks from flooding: Which risks and whose perception?" Disasters 15.3: 227-236, 1991.
  4. Demir, I., Krajewski, W., ‘Towards an integrated Flood Information System: Centralized data access, analysis, and visualization’, Environmental Modeling and Software, 50, 77-84, 2013.
  5. Demir, I., et al. “FLOODSS: Iowa flood information system as a generalized flood cyberinfrastructure”, International Journal of River Basin Management, 2017
  6. ‘Introducing Oculus Go’, Oculus Developer Blog, devel oper.oculus.com/blog/introducing-oculus-go/, 2017
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