British Columbia

This B.C. tech company is using VR for bear safety training

If you found yourself being charged by a 270-kilogram grizzly bear, would you know what to do? A new virtual reality training program could teach you.

Virtual reality gives trainees hands-on experience beyond what classroom learning can provide

VR Safety Training Solutions hopes to teach bear safety with an immersive VR experience. Left to right: Pete McKeen, CTO; Kelly O'Neil, CEO; Shauna Harper, COO; Mick Harper, digital media producer. (Nicole Oud/CBC)

If you found yourself being charged by a 270-kilogram grizzly bear, would you know what to do?

A tech firm in Prince George, B.C., is hoping to teach people how to respond to that exact scenario with a new virtual reality training program — and to make that training stick.

"We realized that a lot of the training you have to take is a little bit mind numbing, and we thought there must a better way to teach and a more effective way to teach," said Kelly O'Neil, CEO of VR Safety Training Solutions.

CBC producer Nicole Oud tries her hand at surviving a virtual bear attack. (She didn't.) (Kallan Lyons/CBC)

Participants begin by donning a virtual reality headset and controller, the latter of which is used during the game to deploy bear spray.

The headset renders an idyllic woodland scene, complete with sound effects — but before long, the player is spotted by a bear, which then charges with frightening speed. Players must use their bear spray before it's too late.

O'Neil says the program was designed to replicate the experience of a bear attack in a way that standard classroom training can't, giving participants the chance to practice reacting in a safe environment.

"That's part of our goal, was that people would get that feeling [of fear]," O'Neil said.

"If you're able to practice when you know what could happen and you have in your mind what could happen and what you need to do, then you're going to be better prepared [in real life]."

Trainees are rushed by a bear in a virtual forest, and must deploy their bear spray before it's too late. (Nicole Oud/CBC)

Chief Technical Officer Pete McKeen says no amount of reading or classroom training can prepare you for just how fast bears can move — and he speaks from experience.

McKeen recalls an encounter with a large grizzly, first spotted about 300 metres away from him.

"He saw me and he just came, and there was no stopping him," McKean said. "It's hard to really explain what goes through your head when that happens."

McKeen believes VR technology has numerous training applications for dangerous situations beyond just wildlife encounters.

"You could go to a gas plant and go into a room or a tank for confined space, film it, and then create a scenario right there," he said.

"It's a few years out, but this is a start, and it's a good start."

With files from Nicole Oud and CBC Radio One's Daybreak North.