Sharing His Reality

Keith Brown pioneers virtual reality technology in Columbia Falls theater, playing interactive films about life in the Flathead

By Molly Priddy
Keith Brown, owner of the Montana Adventure Stop in Columbia Falls. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

COLUMBIA FALLS – It was a perfect bluebird day for skiing Blacktail Mountain in Lakeside – the sun was out, the view was incredible, and the hill was fast. I felt the wind on my face as I cruised down the run, body poised forward, eyes searching in wonder.

The key fact here is that I haven’t actually strapped downhill skis on my feet in 20 years, but at Keith Brown’s revolutionary 4D virtual reality theater, I was right there, with a full 360 degrees of visibility around me thanks to the Oculus company’s virtual reality headset.

Just as we hit the bottom of the run, we were taken elsewhere – a whitewater rafting trip on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, landing a 16-pound rainbow trout on a boat, even riding massive, imaginary waterslides to learn about the wild legend of the Flathead Lake Monster. The breeze brushed my face, Brown’s dog running by touched my legs, and the smell of pine filled the air during an elk hunt.

But taking the headset off and stepping out of the seat programmed to move and respond in sync with the video, I’m back at Montana Adventure Stop in Columbia Heights, a new venture from Brown.

“There’s a lot of people who come here who would love to be on a mountain peak in Glacier, but can’t get there,” Brown said. “I can get you there.”

The eight-seat theater is located in a remodeled space in the back of the Cenex station in the Heights, where Brown has transformed what used to be an automotive garage into a scene straight from any Montanan’s backyard, with picnic tables sitting under full animal mounts in river-rock settings.

The gas station’s convenience store opens into this large space, and the line for the 4D movie experience forms from there. If the idea of sitting in Brown’s backyard rings some bells, it’s because he had a television series called Montana: My Backyard, which explored the beauty and adventure of life here.

“This is, as far as I know, the world’s first virtual reality theater,” Brown said. “This stuff will be pretty common in another year.”

He’s almost right. Samhoud Media in Amsterdam beat him to the punch in March, but otherwise, Brown’s endeavor is one of few. Earlier in May, movie-theater giant IMAX announced plans to open six virtual reality theaters this year, and Six Flags has a dedicated virtual reality roller coaster.

Montana Adventure Stop is slightly different, though, because the entire experience is wireless; the whole theater is controlled through an iPad. Brown will unveil the theater experience to the public mid-June. He’s hoping to have it ready by Father’s Day.

A technology businessman by trade, Brown has been involved in some of the biggest websites on the Internet, and his resume includes working as the vice president of IT for Starbucks, and his team was responsible for putting wireless Internet in the coffee chain’s stores. He’s now the president and CEO of National Flood Services.

The theater only seats eight people, but those seats are very important. Specially designed for movie theater movement experiences, Brown then added his own program to sync up the movement with his videos. Fans blow air, a mister sprays, and “leg ticklers” spin beneath the seats for a full sensory experience.

The films he plans on showing only last 13 minutes at the longest, and there’s an eight-minute version if the lines get too long. Tickets for the adventure will cost $10.

While the technology is a significant investment, Brown said this venture is less about profit than it is about finally achieving a lifelong dream. As a kid, he was fascinated with 3D technology, and remembers being thrilled when color monitors for computers came out, because he could use the red-and-cyan 3D glasses.

He also went to the World’s Fair as a kid, and saw a holograph as part of an exhibit. It lit a fire that has burned in him ever since, which is evident in the details of the theater. Just waiting for the movie to start is an experience, because Brown has developed interactive aspects all over, including the theater’s program.

Look at the Montana Adventure Stop logo through the Oculus lens and suddenly a three-dimensional, animated grizzly bear pops up, ready to interact with your fingers, even offering a growl now and then. Touch the Cenex logo on the program and a small campfire pops up.

For now, the programming is all about Montana experiences, starting on Brown’s back deck in Lakeside, overlooking Flathead Lake.

“I literally have one of the best views in Montana,” Brown said, adding with a laugh, “of course, we all think that.”

Moviegoers are treated to a ride down the tram from his deck to the lake, where they will learn of Brown’s fantastical take on the Flathead Lake Monster legend and take a trip to battle with the dread pirate Red Beard.

It’s an experience for kids and adults alike; I found myself laughing out loud and even cheering or whooping in surprise when I tried it. My grin was plastered from ear to ear, which, according to Brown, is the whole point.

“I’ve always said that I’d love to do something where I can say, ‘I’m a purveyor of smiles,’” Brown said.

For more information on Montana Adventure Stop, visit www.montanaadventurestop.com.

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