Bombs. Destruction. Chaos. This is what it’s like to be in Syria.

It’s a part of the world many will never visit, but a virtual reality experience called “Hero,” puts viewers on the ground there. 

“Hero” was part of the Immersive program at the recent Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where it won an award for its innovative approach to storytelling. More than 30 virtual reality and augmented reality projects were on display at the event.

Not a ‘lean back’ experience

Virtual reality fans say they love the technology for its ability to transport and immerse them in new worlds. More and more, these experiences are becoming physical and interactive, not just a “lean back” experience where the viewer watches passively.

For “Hero,” viewers don a high resolution headset by StarVR and an HP Z VR backpack, a wearable computer that allows for an untethered, free-roaming VR experience.

In real life, users are instructed to close their eyes as a guide leads them by the hand into a room constructed with surfaces and objects that correspond to what they’ll see as the film starts.

When a bomb drops out of the sky, it’s not only the noise that’s unsettling, but the grit and gravel that they suddenly feel against their skin. As the dust settles, a young child’s voice faintly calls out for help. Participants can find and rescue her.

“That moment when a person realizes they can actually step around, they can actually lean on a thing, they can reach out and touch a wall, they can grab a piece of rebar, it’s a powerful moment,” said Brooks Brown, global director of Starbreeze Studios, one of the key collaborators behind “Hero.”

For a few unnerving minutes during the search for the child, disbelief is suspended. The combination of realistic graphics and participants’ ability to physically navigate the terrain makes it feel as if real lives might be in danger.

Different impact

When it comes to war-torn Syria, “We’ve seen movies about it and documentaries, and yet none of them have this same kind of impact” as a VR experience, said Navid Khonsari, founder of iNK Stories, which created “Hero.”

“When you’re fully encompassed in it, when everything is stripped away and you’re actually in that experience, then only can you acknowledge what’s actually taking place for others,” Khonsari said.

For Mathias Chelebourg, a virtual reality director, live VR experiences represent “the birth of a new format.” Chelebourg is the director of the VR experience “Jack: Part One,” which was also part of the virtual reality lineup at Tribeca.

Viewers are in the movie

In the retelling of the children’s fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk, viewers can pick up and move physical props and interact with live actors who are outfitted with motion capture markers. Cameras track the markers and movements are rendered simultaneously in virtual reality.

With a format that mixes reality and fantasy, it can take some getting used to, even for the actors.

“Some people don’t dare to move, to touch or just, respond,” said Maria McClurg, one of the actresses in Jack. “Some people give me a really hard time,” she added. “As a performer, it’s always interesting. And at the same time you’re like, ‘How am I going to get through this?’”

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