virtual reality

What It's Like to Be in a Burning Building in Virtual Reality

If it had been a real house fire, I'd be dead three times over.

by Maya Breen
21 March 2017, 6:00am

One or two minutes. That's all the time you'll have from your fire alarm sounding to when your life is in serious danger. You might think the flames will get you but it's the smoke that can kill you in seconds. Inhaling toxic fumes from all the burning synthetic materials can be as lethal as the carbon monoxide poisoning that strikes when the fire sucks up all the oxygen around you. Then there's the heat. Your house will become a furnace, reaching 1100°C when fully ablaze, but your body will give up the ghost at just 70°C. If the air gets hot enough, it will burn your respiratory tract as you breathe in and just one breath can kill you.

In 2015, 19 people died in preventable house fires in New Zealand. Most of the fatalities happen while people are asleep. A wakeup call from a smoke alarm saves lives, and yet in 80 percent of the fires the NZ Fire Service are called out to, smoke alarms are either not working or not even installed. People just don't get it. So the fire service have come up with a way to actually experience what it's like, in virtual reality.

The fire heats up in virtual reality. All images supplied.

I'm standing in a living room and it's a sunny day outside. But something isn't right. A crackling sound makes me turn and I see some clothes near the heater have caught alight. A piercing beeping noise goes off above me. I look up at the smoke alarm but quickly back towards the fire as the flames are a deep orange now and so searingly bright I can almost feel the heat. The room is getting darker as coal-black smoke creeps along the ceiling. The flames spread quickly, devouring the carpet and a nearby chair. Barely 30 seconds have gone by and the thermostat is showing me the ceiling has reached 374°C.

I know it's not real but I'm still panicking as I try the windows to escape which promptly explode as the flames engulf them. I look down the hall which has turned into a tunnel of doom as more clouds of darkness stream towards me across the ceiling. Within seconds the floor is hidden from sight. I try the front door but it's locked. A bunch of keys are nearby but they're the wrong ones. I'm feeling claustrophobic now and properly disorientated. I can barely see anything and spin around trying to find any other way out. A scrap of light filters through the haze from another room and finally I escape through an open window.

Going full burn for the shoot.

It took three goes to find an open window and escape. As I removed the VR headset for the third time it dawned on me I would have died three times over if it had been a real fire. The words "this room is now un-survivable" floated in front of me each time before I was fast enough at finding a successful escape route.

I live in an apartment on the seventh floor. Not long ago someone's fire alarm went off at 4 AM. The fire brigade was called out but luckily it was just someone's midnight toastie gone wrong. But I shiver at the thought of how I (and most of the other residents in my apartment complex) reacted. No one looked concerned and most were still half asleep.

The VR experience is part of the NZ Fire Service's Escape My House campaign. But how do you film a house burning down to the ground and make sure the footage and equipment doesn't melt along with it? You invent some world-leading technology.

Aliesha Staples, owner of Staples VR, a pioneering company in virtual reality and 360 video capture, says they spent a lot of R&D on building a camera that could do the job.

"We came up with a system that was essentially what the manufacturer had told us we couldn't do," says Staples. "We modified some GoPro cameras—removed the lenses which were plastic and replaced them with glass lenses." They also built-in 220 degree glass lenses with wider field of views so less GoPros were needed and less could go wrong. "That was really important because of how often those cameras overheat."

To get the footage Staples VR had to build the world's first fire-proof 360 video capture system.

They also tested different materials for casing around the GoPros. "The only thing that ended up being exposed to the flames was the actual glass from the lenses themselves—everything else was encased in what we call the 'bomb housing'," says Staples. It all led to building a world-first fire-proof 360 video capture system.

Staples VR carried out a test burn at the NZ Fire Service's training centre in Rotorua, along with advertising agency FCB and production company Kaleidoscope. Producer Paul Stephenson says this was the most important stage to find out if it was even possible to capture. 

"The thing that we realised quite quickly was even with probably 30 fire service guys and all the run-throughs, there's no substitute for actually setting light to the full house, because the whole thing went up way quicker and harder and faster and more hot than any of us realised," says James McMullan of FCB. "Several of the senior fire service guys actually said it was probably one of the most extreme training examples that they'd ever done."

The real burn was so intense the only things that remained intact were a pair of Ugg boots and a prop iPad.

Staples says the experience is a testament to the power of virtual reality. "We've always said that virtual reality is best used when it's transporting someone somewhere where they wouldn't normally be or they wouldn't normally go. And this is a perfect example of somewhere where you wouldn't want to be but it's still something that needs to be experienced to hammer home the message."