I am on the icy floor of Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park, surrounded by imposing, rugged mountainsides.
“This place is wild in the truest sense of the word,” says a park ranger, one of my companions equipped with crampons and axes.
It’s an overcast day. I can hear a subtle breeze, a soft trickle of water from somewhere.
“Look down,” the ranger says, providing the answer. “You are standing above a crevasse on Exit Glacier. Exit Glacier is one of the most visited parts of the park, but very few people get to come here and walk out onto the ice or venture into one of its crevasses.
“Climb down and join me.”
So I do — by clicking the icon that flashes on my computer screen. “Climb into the crevasse,” it reads.
And 30 feet down this slim, blue passage, I can click and drag to see my shimmering, 360-degree surroundings. And later I’ll board a kayak and visit the waters that hem more majestic peaks here. And later I might just leave Kenai Fjords and explore other national parks: volcanoes of Hawaii, caverns of New Mexico, canyons of Utah and deep seas of Florida.
No, I’m not actually there. You wouldn’t be either by pulling up “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks,” a free, virtual set of tours produced by Google Arts & Culture.
Nonetheless, you might feel your wanderlust quenched from your home where the coronavirus pandemic keeps you.
Perhaps never before have virtual outdoors been more compelling than now, in this unprecedented period of quarantine that deprives us of far-flung adventure.
We’re browsing the web more. And while doing so we’re encountering more nature through screens — scenes of melodious streams meant to calm us, along with alpine-backdropped videos accompanied by birdsong.
“Especially right now, (virtual reality) could be a source of inspiration for what we cannot see,” says Lise Aageenbrug, executive director of the Boulder-based Outdoor Industry Association. “But I don’t think it can ever replace getting outside.”
Actually, evidence suggests it’s possible.
In January, Frontiers in Psychology published a University of Illinois-led paper that asked the question: “Can simulated nature support mental health?” In analyzing nearly 200 scientific studies, the answer was yes.
“The literature is not clear on whether simulations of nature serve as substitutes for real nature experienced in the outdoors,” they noted. Still, they heralded emerging technology such as Oculus, whose headsets act as portals to serene realms in which wearers can “wander.” With the simple turn of the head and click of a button, they can discover spoils and surprises of the true wild.
The Illinois researchers concluded: “Nature exposure in virtual reality (VR) can provide emotional well-being benefits for people who cannot access the outdoors.”
University of Waterloo scientists in 2010 made similar conclusions of VR research done before and after them. Stress-induced subjects who spent time in a pixelated forest came out with lower blood pressure. Other physiological and cognitive measurements were found to be more “positive.”
Results “demonstrate that computer-generated nature in VR can promote restorative effects,” the Waterloo team wrote, adding that technological advancements “would allow for the complete customization and creation of restorative environments.”
Advancements have come, but access is the problem, industry leaders say. Gear manufacturing has been slow and price points too high, says Thomas Hayden, the creative co-founder of Portland, Ore.-based 360 Labs.
“People just don’t know what this is all about,” he says. “But boy, if they had a headset at their home, they would sure see and feel the difference today.”
Fortunately for him, he can escape his walls and return to such video projects of the past: from the base camp of Denali, to the banks of the Nahanni River, to the depths of exotic oceans.
Mostly, Hayden’s passion with 360-degree cameras — “magic cameras,” he calls them — takes him back to his first passion for whitewater rafting.
“When I saw this tech like 15 years ago, I saw an opportunity to become a digital river guide,” he says.
Now he likes to say he’s taken more people for trips digitally than he ever did physically on the Colorado Plateau’s mighty rapids.
“It’s visceral, it’s something you remember,” Hayden says. “Like trying to get an old raft guide back on the river when he may never get to go in the Grand Canyon again. That’s why I do what I do.”
Says another outdoor video producer, Tim Kemple: “The ability to transport people so they can literally look down and see thousands of feet of air below their toes, that’s pretty compelling.”
One recent VR project saw his Salt Lake City-based crew use 360 cameras to capture the exploits of famed athletes: Alex Honnold scaling California’s Needles and “Sketchy” Andy Lewis slacklining between Moab towers, among others.
It didn’t exactly work, Kemple admits. The view from phones and laptops wasn’t enough, he says. A headset would’ve been ideal.
“That’s one of the biggest challenges,” Kemple says. “People need to make a conscious effort to enter into the experience.”
More are doing so as game developers capitalize on the natural world. For an example, look no further than Pokemon Go, an app that has sent phone-wielding masses out in search of creatures in an augmented reality.
Last fall, Colorado Parks and Wildlife adopted a similar concept in partnering with the app Agents of Discovery, which has custom-built “trail missions” for preserves around the country. Kids have embarked on missions at state parks, including Cheyenne Mountain State Park in Colorado Springs.
“So much of our young population is glued to screens or video games,” says Jeanette Lara, a park administrator. “So it’s about trying to bridge that gap. How can we engage them with something they’re familiar with, and teach them something about the outdoors?”
Aageenbrug, with the Outdoor Industry Association, understands that benefit. Technology has its place in the outdoors, she says.
And yet, she can’t help but worry about technology invading spaces that are meant to be free of it, free from all of modern life’s complications.
Anyway, when it comes to VR, “I’m not sure people are seeking it,” she says. Judging by busy parks and trails, it seems to her now more than ever they’re seeking the real thing.