The essence of virtual reality’s appeal is immersing yourself in a role you normally wouldn’t or couldn’t in real life. Close your eyes and suddenly you’re a viking or a detective dressed as a bat. But, in our sombre reality, teachers across the country may soon find themselves forced into virtual roles they never chose for themselves: ballistic experts, first responders, crisis coordinators.
EDGE, shorthand for Enhanced Dynamic Geo-Social Environment, is a $5.6 million VR program developed by the U.S. Army and the Homeland Security Department. In the past, EDGE has been a simulation for training fire departments and police agencies to respond to school shootings. In the spring, however, an updated version will be released for teachers.
There are three playable roles in the new simulation: teacher, shooter, and officer. As a teacher, the person in training must corral panicked students and find a safe space in order to save lives. As the shooter, the person navigates the school to find targets and randomly kill. As an officer, the trainee must find and kill the shooter.
“The more experience you have, the better your chances of survival are,” said Tamara Griffith, a chief engineer on EDGE. “So this allows you to practice and have multiple experiences [and] know what works and what doesn’t work.”
In building this new simulation, the EDGE engineering team listened to dispatch audio from Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook in order to incorporates a number of grim realities into the simulation. Potential shooting victims can be both adults or children who are attempting to circumvent locked doors and shattering windows. Those adults and children also panic and flee instead of trying to stay together. The audio, echoing gunshots and children wailing, is at times, unbearable.
But from this, the developers have incorporated essential survival tactics. In the chaos, prompts on the screen indicate best practices: locking doors, staying away from windows, lining up students against the walls, and quickly finding items that can serve as barricades. Administrators can also run the EDGE simulation with different tools, like an intercom system or automated locks. Griffith hopes that by running the simulation in different roles and with different security options, teachers can remain focused and calm if they find themselves in the middle of a mass shooting.
“With teachers, they did not self-select into a role where they expect to have bullets flying near them. Unfortunately, it’s becoming a reality,” Griffith said. “And so we want to give them that chance to understand what options are available to them and what might work well for them.”
It’s a dark irony that after 1999's Columbine High School shooting, parents, teachers, and lawmakers tried to blame video games. Now, in 2018, VR simulations are attempting to prepare parents and teachers to save lives during similar shootings. Our relationship with technology has changed immensely in 20 years, but the violence and heartache of school shootings seems cyclical, rooted in something VR can perhaps mitigate—but never truly solve.