Thanks to immersive technology, it’s never been easier to set foot inside a hurricane without getting wet.
Last month, a Weather Channel video using mixed reality technology demonstrated the effects of storm surge on an ordinary American neighborhood. The simulation — which is being used again with updated forecasts as Hurricane Michael approaches the Florida coast Wednesday — riveted audiences, racking up tens of millions of views.
Researchers at Hofstra University have also produced a virtual reality simulation showing the brutal effects of a Category 3 hurricane (with sustained winds between 111 and 129 mph) on a neighborhood block. The simulation, which shows ominous seawater gradually swallowing homes, also includes a view from inside a home as waters rise. Researchers created the simulation to study whether virtual reality has the potential to make coastal residents more likely to heed storm warnings and evacuate, according to the university.
“Researchers have shown that it’s not necessarily about more information, but about meaningful information,” Gina Eosco, a risk communication expert with Cherokee Nation Strategic Programs, told Newsday in May, adding that VR “may help make weather risks come alive and feel more believable.”
The Hofstra project is being led by Jase Bernhardt, an assistant professor in the Department of Geology, Environment and Sustainability. He told the paper that the people who viewed the simulation reported that they were more likely to evacuate ahead of a real life storm and warn others. He said storm warnings become convincing after someone has seen “water rising up to chest level” in the VR simulation.
“I tested out VR for the first time when I first became a faculty member at Hofstra and was impressed with the realism,” Bernhardt told VRScout. “I immediately thought that it would be an excellent tool for communicating the effects of extreme weather events in an engaging way, going beyond simple text, or 2D maps and graphics.”
The Weather Channel’s mixed reality video suggested that, for some people, even a less immersive experience has the power to impress upon people the dangers of an impending storm.
On YouTube, commenters who’d viewed the viral storm surge video said the power of illustrating a hurricane’s wrath was undeniable.
“I’d run for the hills if I saw this and I was in the path of this type of flooding and destruction,” one viewer wrote.
“Wow, this should be playing on every news site,” wrote another. “Incredible computer imaging. If I was trying to decide if I should evacuate or not…this would DEFINITELY tell me to GO!!!”
The Weather Channel debuted its IMR technology in June with a video depicting a hyper-realistic tornado. With sirens blaring in the background, an impromptu science lesson from on-camera meteorologist Jim Cantore turns into a death-defying drama as the storm tosses cars and downs power lines before eventually destroying The Weather Channel studio while Cantore seeks shelter.
“I watched hours of rehearsals and still flinched when the car dropped from the ceiling,” Nora Zimmett, senior vice president of content and programming at the Weather Company told The Washington Post in June. “To see the culmination of six months of front-line work appear on screen as an Immersive Mixed Reality experience emphasizes that the Weather Channel is the leader in groundbreaking technology.”