At the end of 2019, a town called Paradise in California signed a Green Chico Deal to rebuild their town to be carbon neutral and sustainable after it was completely destroyed by wildfires.
At the time, I'd just started researching ideas on how we could extend the themes of extreme weather and preparedness from the TV series Big Weather (and how to survive it) with ABC Impact executive producer Teri Calder.
I was working from the North Coast of NSW while spending time with my family after they'd just recovered from fighting fires on our farm outside of Kempsey.
These fires were only the beginning of a bushfire season that would end up being the worst on record in NSW.
Reading the story about Paradise during Black Summer inspired me to reimagine how we might live if we could start again.
How could we build our homes and our communities to be better prepared for extreme weather and be carbon neutral?
Introducing Mt Resilience: a 3D virtual town on your mobile
I've always worked in digital media and have a particular interest in how immersive storytelling can take an audience somewhere they can't go, step into someone else's shoes or reimagine a whole new environment.
The ABC is always trying to tell stories to audiences in different ways and has been experimenting in immersive and interactive media for years.
We've launched world class experiences via dedicated apps like Space Discovery AR and Kokoda VR.
But apps are hard to market, slow to access and difficult to maintain, so we needed to investigate other ways of delivering immersive experiences to broad audiences, beyond apps and costly hardware.
The ABC's head of Immersive content, Nathan Bazley and I investigated how best to deliver Mt Resilience and decided that webAR, although an emerging technology, was our best option.
WebAR is much more accessible and available to anyone with a phone or tablet — no extra equipment or headgear needed.
All you need to explore the town is to tap on the URL or scan the QR code on you device — something that has become ubiquitous during COVID-19.
Until now it had only been used to create marketing campaigns for companies or non-government organisations.
This project makes the ABC the first broadcaster in the world to experiment with interactive webAR storytelling.
The last episode of Mt Resilience, launching this week, includes scientifically accurate animations of bushfires and storms voiced by ABC News Breakfast weather presenter Nate Byrne, and five animated adaptations that highlight aspects of resilience woven into a narrative voiced by award-winning actress Ursula Yovich.
We also worked with Indigneous artist Blak Douglas to capture Indigenous visual concepts to shape the story of how Mt Resilience came to be.
This type of project is a first for the ABC, and just like its name, it challenged us creatively, technically and personally.
Building a team to build a town
Mt Resilience was approved by the ABC in early 2020 with support from multiple teams, including Nathan Bazley, who guided me through the technical challenges of AR and strategised as to how we could get this made; ABC Science reporter Genelle Weule, who worked on the adaptive animation stories; and Nate Byrne, who worked with Diana Eadie from the Bureau of Meteorology to create the 3D weather systems.
To build our mini 3D town, I approached XR studio PHORIA, a team of specialist producers, 3D modelers, animators, designers and sound designers led by XR director Samuel Tate.
Resilience and climate change are complex and nuanced subjects to tackle and it took months of research, interviews, workshops and storyboards to explore how we should tell this story in this new format.
We wanted to get across the idea that resilience is not just about disaster preparedness, but an overall vision of how we can mobilise ourselves and communities to create change.
Mt Resilience is not based on any one town in Australia, but a combination of towns across Australia.
The idea is that it inspires people to apply some of these concepts in their own backyards, on an individual level, community and government level.
Realising Mt Resilience in AR was an opportunity to put aside all the red tape and negative attitudes of why we can't change — and start all over again.
To guide us, we consulted a variety of specialised ABC content makers, the producer of Big Weather (and how to survive it) and 35 experts from CSIRO, BOM, universities, climate think tanks, emergency services, organisations such as Firesticks Alliance, The Next Economy, YIKES! and people with lived experiences of disasters such as Sarah O'Brien from Dungog and former fire chief Mark Crosweller.
We needed so many different brains to help tell this story because we had to cover so many different aspects of society.
It was important to include voices from all parts of the community.
Once we had all our research, the challenge was how to communicate all of this detail in a meaningful way and make sure it was entertaining.
New technologies, new challenges
The beautiful illustrative design of the town and the animations, the lovely voice of our narrator, Ursula Yovich, and the immersive sound design throughout each animation brings Mt Resilience to life.
If you take a close look around town, you can spot artwork from Reg Mombassa, Elaine Russell and Blak Douglas scattered throughout town as murals, billboards and there's even one of Reg's kangaroos as a 3D statue.
Tiny details like balloons, kites, electric cars zooming around town, troopies in the cultural burning scenes bring life into the scenes.
And audio grabs from Big Weather (and how to survive it) tell the stories of people who've lived through recent disasters.
WebAR has many variables and there was a limit on how many visual elements, audio and animations we could include in the overall experience.
Developing for webAR meant we had to take into account different user behaviours, what mobiles people were on, how old their devices were, what size screens they had, which operating system they were using and whether people had updated their software or not.
Even a little peg person riding his bike around town could crash the experience on some devices, so we had to pull back on quite a few aspects of the project.
The biggest challenge besides actually building the experience has also been encouraging people to play with a new medium on their phones in AR.
It sits outside people's daily media habits and has taken some convincing to get people to make the time to try it out.
It's a bit like getting people to try new food, they don't really know what they're missing until they take a taste.
Once immersed in Mt Resilience, people discover an amazing level of detail and information — suddenly there's a fire tornado in their living room!
COVID-19 helped and hindered us
With the impact of COVID-19 compounding the devastating effect of the Black Summer fires, the topic of resilience became even more relevant.
We knew producing content for webAR would be difficult, as there were so many unknowns, but coronavirus restrictions and lockdowns across the country made it even more challenging.
The whole team (and our partners) worked in isolation across the country, collaborating and problem solving remotely via video conferencing.
To make matters worse, I was juggling a two-year-old in lockdown while also suffering severe morning sickness!
After six months of intense production, we launched Mt Resilience at the end of October.
Besides your living rooms, you can also now spot Mt Resilience in Parramatta town square.
The team partnered with the ABC's Content Ideas Lab to produce content for Storybox, a video story box placed in the town square.
Passers-by can watch video excerpts from Mt Resilience in AR and then scan the QR code directly to their phones.
In future, the experience may also be used as an educational resource in schools and by disaster preparedness organisations.
We hope Mt Resilience will give audiences a chance to dream about a better future during this monumental time in history where there is some space in people's lives to create change.
As our narrator, Ursula Yovich, says in the experience: "The people of Mt Resilience are making bold choices to the way they live and making room for extreme weather.
"It might have cost a little more at the start, and the changes harder to make, but the payoff is worth it.
"Mt Resilience supports everyone to survive and thrive into the future."ABC