'Let's hope everyone made it out': virtual reality game immerses players in Port Alberni, B.C., tsunami

A team at the University of Victoria is developing a virtual realty game based on a real tsunami that slammed into Port Alberni, B.C. in 1964.

UVic prototype based on models from real wave on display at B.C. Tech Summit in Vancouver

Players of the game can dispatch emergency responders to earthquake damage such as fires before the tsunami wave arrives. (University of Victoria)

It looks, feels and sounds like the real thing.

A team at the University of Victoria is developing a virtual reality game based on data from a real tsunami that slammed into Port Alberni, B.C., in 1964.

The technology could eventually be used to help emergency officials prepare for the next big wave.

"It's actually a scenario that allows people to look at the tsunami event that happened in 1964," said Yvonne Coady, a professor of computer science at the university.

"You feel like you are there, and you are looking at Port Alberni, and it is actually accurate."

The 1964 tsunami was triggered by a massive earthquake in Alaska. Water swept away cars and homes in the city, which sits on an inlet on the west coast of Vancouver Island, but no one was killed. 

The game uses a mix of virtual reality headsets, smart phones, tablets and laptops to create the realistic emergency response scenario.

Players have to decide how to handle to the situation, which includes damage caused by an earthquake and the inundation from a tsunami wave.

"It gives people the planning process on what to do in a situation like this," Coady said.

Scientifically accurate wave

Players must decide how and where to dispatch emergency resources as fires break out. Then a tsunami wave arrives and water floods through some areas of the city.

"Let's hope everyone made it out," says the computer generated voice that narrates the game.

The virtual reality team collaborated with Ocean Networks Canada for the scientifically accurate models in the game. Based at the University of Victoria, the organization monitors Canada's coasts and provides data for scientific research.

Virtual reality game under development at UVic could help people prepare for real disasters. 1:37

The data comes from sources such as the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Canadian Hydrographic Service, and Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District.

Technology firms such as IBM, Compute Canada and Westgrid were also involved.

The scientific accuracy of the tsunami as it hits Port Alberni during the game is important because it shows how different parts of the city are affected by the rising water, said Tania Lado Insua, an Ocean Analytics Program Manager at Ocean Networks Canada.

"The way that the wave will behave is not necessarily the same in all of these places," she said.

Future potential

The game is a prototype at this point, but the technology could one day help people prepare for the real thing.

"We are just testing, basically, this tool that we think has a lot of potential."

Virtual reality technology could give emergency preparedness officials another tool to engage people in preparing for the next big earthquake or tsunami, said Tanya Patterson, emergency program coordinator for the City of Victoria.

"It looks really cool and very realistic, so it gains people's attention and makes them understand what they might experience," she said.

The team from UVic will show off the virtual reality game this week at the B.C. Tech Summit in Vancouver. 

Ocean Networks Canada created the wave model for the game from the 1964 tsunami that seriously damaged Port Alberni. (University of Victoria)

About the Author

Megan Thomas

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Megan Thomas is a reporter for CBC in Victoria, B.C. She covers stories from around Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast. Follow her on Twitter @meganTcbc.