Walking the plank…in virtual reality | News, sports, jobs

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Reporter Ferry moves his feet hesitantly from a virtual elevator onto a plank hundreds of feet above the ground.

I am not a man afraid of heights and consider myself quite rational.

But when I was asked to step out of the elevator onto a plank maybe eight inches wide, hundreds of feet above the ground, I was very hesitant… even though I knew it wasn’t real.

This week, law enforcement agents from across Warren County participated in a three-part training event put on by Northern Pennsylvania Regional College (NPRC) and the Emergency Response Training and Certification Association (ERTCA).

I covered this event. It just so happened that I was there when the last few officers went through some VR scenario.

ERTCA instructors asked if I wanted to try it out.


I wasn’t trained as a police officer, so the scenarios they went through just didn’t make sense to me.

As I was walking toward the center of the Youngsville Volunteer Fire Department’s designated area, Isaac looked at Pat and said, “the elevator?”

I put on my headset and looked around.

There was an elevator right in front of me and Isaac asked me to step in and press the button marked “Plank” on the VR device I had in my hand.

That was easy.

As I climbed many floors, I could see through the crack between the doors. I looked around. There were four buttons. I don’t remember the two below “plank”. Near the floor, where you have to really mean to look up to find it, was “I’m Short.” I laughed.

The elevator stops. The doors opened. There was a plank. There is no floor. Nowhere. Just plank over a long drop. There were buildings everywhere. I could hear the sounds – I don’t remember exactly because I was concentrating on the plank and trying to follow the instructions to get out on it.

I knew I was in the firehouse. I knew there was no plank, just a hard floor several steps in each direction.

Isaac repeated the command to get out on the plank.

“I do not want it” I said.

“Just get out on the plank.”

After several seconds of hesitation, I moved my feet sideways on the plank—away from the end. I couldn’t see those feet—another dead giveaway I was in VR—but it didn’t matter.

As I was exiting the elevator, both feet angled roughly perpendicular to the plank, I looked away from my building, straight ahead. Elevator doors can be closed. For all I know, the building could have disappeared. I didn’t look back there. I told myself it was because I wanted to look around and see the sights. I wasn’t looking down either.

“Look down.”

I groaned, but looked down. It wasn’t too bad.

“Have you ever skydived?”

“Yeah, it was great.”

“Good, you have an umbrella on your back.”

– – –

“Go and get off the plank.”

I looked to the left. There was a large metal vent sticking out of the front over there. And there was another one on the right. I wouldn’t be able to get out safely to either side. (I still knew I was in the firehouse).

I had to slide my feet to the end of the plank.

I wanted to go down and fall – that’s the cool part of skydiving for me.

I remembered that I should not lean forward and fall on my face… There is a floor there that would hit me in the face if I did.

However, knowing the existence of a floor was just a complication. I had to work so as not to lean forward and expect the floor to meet my right foot off the end of the plank.

I accelerated towards the ground and was getting terribly close without slowing down. I “He hits” Earth, straight across into a bright white light.

“Oops. Your waterfall didn’t open.”

Being hesitant about VR meant I was vulnerable to it. He meant something to me. My heart rate was high. I could feel the blush on my face. Officers faced more than a passive threat of falling in their scenarios. Everyone I spoke to said it was stressful.

Then, I swapped my VR rig for a VR rifle and hit the shooting range. This was even better than a lift—just like real shooting, but without the bounce. You did well.

Then, perhaps because the trainers got to have fun while I was in the elevator, I had fun. They put me in an alley and told me to shoot the bad guys, but not the good guys.

In addition to the 360-degree alley, there were balconies above me to keep me guessing.

You shot a bunch of bad guys. I shot a good guy – he was between two bad guys. I figured it out, but it seems I got it anyway. I didn’t get all the bad guys. They just disappeared – without shooting me – if I didn’t get them fast enough.

Alley was fun. I wasn’t entrusted with it. I didn’t feel in danger.

The elevator was “TRUE” And I understood how officers might feel the pressure of their scenarios.

The scenarios reflected dangerous situations. I hope they never find themselves in situations like this in real life, but if they do, thanks to NPRC and ERTCA, I suspect they are at least better prepared for them than they have been before.

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