UPDATED 00:09 EDT / JANUARY 25 2018


A Columbine massacre survivor uses virtual reality to create empathy for tragedy

Brooks Brown was a former friend of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two shooters responsible for the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. He survived only because Harris told him to leave before the shootings began.

Now, Brown (pictured today) is using virtual reality to let people experience tragedy for themselves. The global director of VR for Starbreeze Studios and a pioneer in the newly emerging field, Brown is attempting to use the technology to give people a window into others’ traumatic experiences in a way no other description or experience can provide.

The author of “No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine High School” spoke to theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s live streaming studio, during a panel last weekend at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, which runs through Sunday. TheCUBE explored the topic of “The New Creative” at the festival, examining the ways new technologies such as VR are turning film artists into something akin to software developers.

Brown explained how his team and new media studio iNK Stories created a “multisensory” experience called “HERO” to provide that kind of intense experience. As the promo for the project, currently in exhibition at Sundance, explains cryptically: “A barrel bomb drops, blowing rubble everywhere. Amidst the destruction, a call for help comes from the debris. Will you embark on the hero’s journey? HERO is a deeply provocative, immersive, multi-sensory narrative that evolves as audiences actively participate in its elaborate canvas of virtual and actual environments. A large-scale installation that explores human connection in our modern era of civilian warfare.”

The result, Brown said, is that “things react to you” in the virtual environment. “Smell, temperature, air movement, audio.” The goal is to put people in a situation and see how they would react. He wasn’t willing to give away what that situation is for fear of lessening the impact of the experience, but the core concept is to see if the person in that particular situation would be a hero.

“All over the world, every day, people are going through horrific stuff,” Brown said. “We’re fortunate because we’re the kind of people who, in order to experience, say, a tragedy in Syria, we’re fortunate that we have to go to Park City in Utah and go in virtual realty to experience something that is tragic, real and deeply emotional.”

The objective is not so much to frighten or thrill people but to put them through these difficult experiences in virtual reality with the hope that they will come out of it changed. He went as far as to say that his team set out to make people feel “traumatized” after a stint in Hero.

Emotional impact

That might seem almost sadistic on the surface, but the goal is to give people “a little more empathy into the real world” so that they can at least attempt to understand those who have lived the reality of these tragedies.

This kind of experience stands in stark contrast to “social VR” that’s currently gaining in popularity, let alone film- and game-centered VR. “The goal is to put a person inside an event rather than a game-style situation where you have objective A, B or C, or a film that’s a very, very hyper linear narrative,” he said. “What is that sort of middle ground that VR itself has as a unique medium?” he added. “There’s very few people who come down that middle line and go, well, this is what VR is supposed to be. This is that interesting thing that makes it very unique.”

Brown believes VR is edging closer to these full-on, believable, emotive experiences, following a slow start and some amount of skepticism towards the technology. “We’re not there yet,” he said, “but we’re much closer every time.”

Asked how his work will pan out, and what kind of societal impact his traumatic virtual experience will have, Brown said some people who tested Hero had to be pulled out of the experience before it was over. “A number of them simply couldn’t handle it,” he said. “The moment we took their headset off, tears were streaming down their face.”

But he doesn’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. “There’s a level of emotional impact VR is extremely able to cut through,” he said, explaining that you’re neither a character in a game, nor are you in a separate world. “You are you inside that space,” he said, and it seems that’s not an easy pill to swallow.

“That is the dangerous but very promising ability of VR,” he concluded, sounding rather ominous but also rather hopeful.

Here’s the full video of the Sundance panel:

Image: SiliconANGLE

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