30 years after Chernobyl, drones take you on a VR tour of the silent city

The abandoned city of Pripyat in northern Ukraine is shrouded in layers of radioactive dust and remains dangerous today. However, you can visit in virtual reality.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Richard Trenholm
Ian Sherr
3 min read

When Wojciech Pazdur was 9, his father came home from his job as a nuclear physician in Poland and said all his equipment had gone crazy. He said this meant "something bad had happened."

It was April 26, 1986. His father was right.

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine had exploded, sending radioactive debris into the sky over Europe as emergency crews battled deadly radioactivity to bring the catastrophe under control.

Thirty years later, Pazdur is part of the team that visited the abandoned city of Pripyat, home of the Chernobyl plant, to create a 3D, virtual reality version of the now-deserted area. To mark the 30th anniversary of the disaster, which killed 31 people and contributed to the deaths and long-term health problems of thousands more, the team has released a haunting 360-degree trailer that allows you to explore the eerie remains of a city that was once home to nearly 50,000 people.

Pazdur is creative director at Reality 51, a Polish video game development company. The 3D version of Chernobyl and Pripyat is produced using photogrammetry, a technique that involves laser scanning and photographing the area in precise detail. This video explains how it's done:

Click here to view the 3-minute, 40-second trailer for the video project on YouTube. You'll need to view it on a mobile device or in a browser with Flash enabled.

The project began as the team set out to take people to an interesting place they could never visit in real life. "At first it was play: How fun it would be to go to Chernobyl?" Pazdur told CNET's Ian Sherr. "But then we went to Ukraine and talked to people...I started to understand this is serious. It's important to bring the world's attention to the disaster."

Up to 60 percent of the proceeds from the video project, which fully launches in June, will go to charities supporting victims of the disaster.

Among the people most affected were the "liquidators" who worked to contain the disaster, such as firefighters, medical personnel, soldiers and locals. Radioactive levels were so high that liquidators clearing the rooftops of surrounding buildings could only work for 40 seconds at a time.

Enlarge Image

A screenshot of the ghostly 3D virtual reality environment modeled from visits to the real Chernobyl.

Reality 51

"They didn't have proper protective suits," said Pazdur. "We heard from one man they had better suits but didn't wear them to avoid scaring the other workers." Liquidators were exposed to horrific levels of radiation, many without knowing how dangerous the situation was.

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, 237 people showed signs of acute radiation sickness. Within three months, 31 were dead. In the 30 years since, the disaster has contributed to serious illnesses and birth defects for people in large parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

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The city of Pripyat was evacuated the following day. Today it stands empty, abandoned and ruined. Even now, the silent city is a dangerous one.

"You have to be all day on your feet. If you sit, you may get [radioactive] dust on you," Pazdur said of the precautions his team had to take when photographing and scanning the area. "You have to watch out because you can't walk into the bushes. You cannot touch anything. You cannot eat. You can drink but you have to spit first.

"When you are in Chernobyl you feel different because there are no sounds around you," said Pazdur. "There are no birds, and no insects."

But, he added, "there are a bunch of snakes."

The full VR documentary will be available for the Oculus Rift headset at first, then later for the PlayStation VR and HTC Vive. Still, Pazdur notes that virtual reality is so new that he has a lot of questions.

"How do you tell stories in VR?" he asked. And VR is far from a proven commercial prospect. "No one knows how to earn money in VR," said Pazdur. "But even if we won't earn a whole lot of money, at least we can make something meaningful."

Watch this: The history of VR