VR doing good: How a non-profit wrecked an oil tanker in Vancouver without spilling a drop

Canadian non profit Dogwood Initiative used virtual reality to simulate an oil spill on Vancouver's English Bay and keep citizens informed of the dangers to their coastline.

Image: Adrian Crook and Associates

Disaster and abstraction share an odd bond.

That's the problem -- there's a limit on how dire something sounds when it's merely an idea or a warning.

But, put a visual on it, make it exist in some capacity, and the urgency of a situation can escalate dramatically.

For the Dogwood Initiative, a Canadian sustainable land reform organization, an ongoing concern is keeping oil tanker traffic away from Vancouver's coast. In November, the group launched a campaign to show what Vancouver's English Bay would look like after an oil spill.

It wasn't pretty -- floating barrels, oil-soaked sand, fires in the water, a dead whale.

Mercifully, this mess existed only in virtual reality.

People wandering one of the paths near the bay could step up to a pair of vintage binoculars -- the kind you might have seen at an overlook or some monument as a kid, on a pole, cemented into the ground -- and see the bay as it might be after an accident, only to look up and see the same vantage point, as pristine as it is.

To create this VR experience, Dogwood Initiative worked with creative agency Rethink Canada. They've worked together before on different campaigns. For example, in 2009 they created a campaign where they put electro-static stickers on the backs of the one-dollar coin, or the loonie, that made it look as though the loon and the water on the coin were covered in oil. Underneath was the URL for NoTankers.ca.

Image: Adrian Crook and Associates

Rethink's creative director, Dré Labre, had experience working with VR in the 90s, when it was "pixelated and laggy." For him, Oculus' entrance put VR back on the table.

"We weren't thinking of it as virtual reality, so much as using virtual reality to demonstrate an alternate reality of the situation," Labre said.

To actually build the VR experience, Rethink worked with freemium mobile game design consultants Adrian Crook and Associates, and Factory 1 Studios, both based in Vancouver.

Though Rethink had the idea informally for the VR experience for about a year and a half, when they got serious about launching the project, they had about 6 weeks to make it happen, Labre said.

There were more than a few decisions to make early on -- Labre said they'd initially considered relying on something Google Cardboard-esque, essentially depending on a Nexus 5's processor, but quickly realized that the phone couldn't handle the complex animation they wanted.

See: 10 things brands should know about virtual reality

This lead them to Oculus' DK (Developer Kit) 1 and Unity software.

As both are still nascent, they required a great deal of troubleshooting, said Factory 1 Studios' Lasko Konopa. This included everything from updating the software (and whatever it threw out of whack as a result) to making sure the VR buildings were the same size as in real life. During an onsite test, Konopa even realized that the water was crooked and had to find a way to fix that.

During the development process, they also made the switch to Oculus' DK 2 when it became available.

Back on Rethink's end, they worked with a props company to manufacture the binoculars, as buying a vintage set was expensive, and the metal would be very difficult to modify in terms of fitting an Oculus headset inside. The switch to the DK 2, though, meant drilling a few extra holes to accommodate wires running down to the laptop stored in the base of the binoculars.

Speaking of that laptop -- that was another area Konopa and Adrian Crook, of Adrian Crook and Associates, said took some creativity.

"The ideal Oculus rift demo machine is not a laptop," Crook said.

Ideally, you'd have a desktop computer with high end graphics, but that's a little hard to hide.

"Lasko did a lot of work to optimize the machine, but there was still more lag than we would have liked, which can break the immersion in VR," Crook said, though, judging by the reactions they got from those who stumbled upon it, the lag wasn't too obvious.

For the research process, Rethink gathered footage from various oil spills, as well as photos and news articles to get a feel for what it might be like if there were an oil spill close to shore, with a bit of added drama, Labre said. Oil spills can vary -- some are more visually quiet, and other produce a lot more visible damage. Still, they worked to figure out details like what color rings of burned off oil are -- yellow, not orange, in case you were wondering. They also used Google Earth images of the bay, and used both 3D and 2D textures and planes to construct the bay in Unity.

When the day finally came, they set up the binoculars and a few signs warning people they might be on camera. Labre said that when people saw the "No Tankers" sticker, they gravitated toward it as a hashtag. #NoTankers trended regionally.

And since it was just a few days before local elections, even the incumbent mayoral candidate turned up at the installation.

Labre said he first person to walk up to the binoculars actually swore loudly when he looked through them.

"I was surprised at the amount of people that did double takes and looked around like 'how can this be? That's not happening out there, but it's happening in here,'" Labre said.

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