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How Stringer bends mind and reality in the name of protecting war reporters

As far as I can tell, I'm in Afghanistan. 
In one ear, I can hear the coordinated chants of Canadian soldiers marching in unison. In the other, the surreal but instantly recognizable chug of war machines—whirring helicopter blades and the clank of a tank moving across the dirt. I'm holding my video camera and a clipboard with a few notes on it. After a few seconds, I get over the initial disorientation of the new setting and pivot my head to take in the scene. In the nearby canteen, by the Tim Horton's kiosk, I can overhear two soldiers blowing off steam, chatting about Limp Bizkit. I decide to shoot a bit of film of them. 
Throughout the camp, out in the open, doctors run through first aid training—putting on tourniquets and wrapping bandages—basic procedures like the ones I picked up in the days of shadow lifeguarding when I was 15, memories that are foggy now. 
I only have a bit of time to shoot a few clips of the training before I have to hop in the Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV) heading out into the field.
The ride is shaky and motion sickness starts to kick up in my stomach. I'm not sure where, when or how it happens, but suddenly there's a loud noise. An explosion. 
Then it's black. 
I come to and a desert scene materializes. There are several soldiers around, all screaming in pain. I look down at my own hands. They're awkward and stubborn, but I manage to run to the closest soldier and grab a bandage from the first aid kit. As I'm trying to wrap his wound, my hands flail wildly. It's frustrating and that growing wave of motion sickness crests again, making my body buzz. Cold sweat starts to trace its way down my back.
"I can't do it," I say reaching for my helmet. "I'm going to be sick."
I pull the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset off my eyes to see Ali Kokulu, sitting in a swivel chair, surrounded by computers.
"It happens to a lot of people," says Kokulu as he takes the Razer Hydra, two controllers with joysticks connected to a green-glowing sphere, and sets it next to the rest of the cutting edge, in-development gaming equipment on the edge.
I'm not in Afghanistan. Kokulu and I are sitting in George Brown College's School of Design where Kokulu, a recent graduate of the game design post-grad program has a small workspace set up. 
Originally from Istanbul, Turkey, he came to Canada to attend George Brown, but the 30-year-old had no idea he'd end up assistant producer and designer on the development of Stringer, a virtual reality first aid training tool for journalists heading to combat situations and conflict areas.
The "serious game," created between July and December of last year, is a collaboration between 3D game application developer Cinema Suite and GBC's School of Design, including six students from the game programming, game development, and game design programs. Development for the game was funded via a $30,000 grant from the Ontario Centres of Excellence.
"It's a pretty small-scale game," says Kokulu. "We mostly wanted to experiment with new tech like the Razer Hydra and Oculus Rift."
The game developer had acquired the Oculus Rift—a revolutionary virtual reality headset that is still in development mode—by donating $300 to a Kickstarter campaign. His reward: to own the technology before it hits the market.
But much like the tech itself, Stringer has an intriguing history. 
Ben Sainsbury, the lead on the project from Cinema Suite, initially brought the idea of collaborating to the school.
While studying at University of Southern California, he got wind of intriguing tests on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by the school's research arm the Institute for Creative Technologies.
"They were using the Oculus Rift and Unity game engine to take people back into the incident that caused them the post-traumatic stress and desensitizing them so they can work through their trauma," says Sainsbury. "We talked about doing a Canadian version."
He brought the concept to several Canadian institutions including the Chief Psychiatrist of the Canadian Armed Forces, but the organizations were trepid about adopting the unproven concept, some even said they'd rather build it in house using their own resources.
But he also heard a story of a Canadian journalist wounded when a LAV hit an improvised explosive device that caused him to rethink the nature of the concept.
"There was chaos inside the LAV and she didn't get treated because she didn't know basic first aid," says Sainsbury.
He decided that maybe the concept would be more suited as a first aid training tool for journalists, especially "stringers"—slang for freelancers working in the field—who might not work at a news organization with the resources to provide some sort of training.
He heard through the grapevine that through Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) funding George Brown has a mandate to do e-health projects and research involving tech and healthcare treatment. 
"So I told them about this project," says Sainsbury, adding that they thought it was a great idea. "We treated it almost like a video game. We had animators, artists, programmers." 
They also called in experts to consult, including journalists who had been in conflict zones and Mike Webster from Wilderness Medical Associates International, to make sure the training was on the level.
"We did our research for the design of the game," says Jean-Paul Amore, Producer and Principle Investigator from George Brown for the project. "It has a serious purpose. We're training journalists that are going to go into war scenarios what to expect and they need to understand first aid." 
So far, the game has yet to find a publisher. Sainsbury has stepped away from Cinema Suite to work on other projects and Kokulu is working on a few games and apps of his own—both with the school and independently. Ultimately, Kokulu would like to make the move from the Razer controller to the much more intuitive and gesture-based Myo band from Kitchener-based wearable tech start-up Thalmic Labs.
"It would take a lot of development time but you can duplicate your hand movements one to one which would let us make an actual training simulation for first aid," he adds.
Amore's banking on the buzz surrounding the Oculus Rift, which was recently purchased by Facebook, to help pique interest in the training tool so they can develop it further and add more training levels.

"Oculus Rift is still in development stages," he says. "Every gamer is curious about it, what it's going to do to the marketplace and to the next gen of consoles."
Until Stringer gets a commercial release, there's only the motion sickness of Afghanistan.

Andrew Seale is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose writing has appeared in The Toronto StarThe Vancouver SunThe Calgary Herald, and Alternatives Journal among other places. 
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