I headed down to the Tribeca Film Festival yesterday, to check out the Tribeca Virtual Arcade. Apparently Sarah Jessica Parker and Spike Lee were doing talks about movies in the room next door, but whatever. My motivation was to check out Starbreeze and Ink Stories’ HERO: A Vérité VR Experience. Not only is the team at Ink Stories longtime friends of Sandbox, but we’re huge fans of their acclaimed title 1979 Revolution: Black Friday. HERO is a virtual reality experience that puts you on the streets of a war-torn Syrian city, when a bomb drops and you absorb the aftermath. It made a big splash at Sundance, with reports of people coming out of it stunned and speechless.
Our experience began in a small room, where a serious yet soft spoken woman sets up the VR unit with clear warnings about what to do if you aren’t comfortable (they can stop the demo at any time, and I’m sure this isn’t an uncommon occurrence). We learned quickly this isn’t a stationary demo, you walk around and touch physical items while wearing a Star VR head-mounted display with a backpack. Once I opened my eyes, I was on the streets of Aleppo, a feeling so realistic it’s jarring. Kids are calling to their mothers, there are people nearby having conversations, a dog plays in the street. Regular life taking place in a city in ruins. You stand in a limited area, surrounded by tires and debris, looking in all directions, taking it in… then the bomb drops and everything goes white and nothing can be heard but desperate screams. At this point you begin to navigate the world, a sequence of events that culminates in a devastating yet hopeful ending that I won’t spoil here.
HERO was a one-of-a-kind mix of virtual reality, theme park ride, and haunted house. Credit to Navid Khonsari at Ink Stories for envisioning the next level of location-based entertainment, while forcing a reckoning with the tragedy unfolding daily in Syria. I’ve never experienced anything like it.