Climbing Everest in Virtual Reality Was More Powerful Than Any Video Game
This is virtual tourism meeting its most epic potential, the sort of project that really isn't for the players, but for the people.
Interstellar battles against war-mongering alien races. Sprawling, supernatural worlds full of magic and monsters. Alternative-history action adventures with all the stabbing and the shooting and the running and the crouching. Video games roll out fantasy after fantasy until, frankly, they're just the default mode for this form of entertainment, the same setting but in different shades. I can escape into the otherworldly any given evening, until it's boring. But real fantasy fulfilment, having dreams delivered, that's something else. And it's something I now have a taste for, having stood at the top of Mount Everest – Sagarmatha, Chomolungma – in virtual reality.
Because, really, isn't that the ultimate dream fulfilment? Climbing to the highest point on our planet is something only an exclusive few ever achieve. Millions of people across the world play Grand Theft Auto, Halo and Mass Effect games, every year; but in 2015, not one human being summited Everest, the first time that'd happened since 1974. Tragedy was the factor behind the zero figure: the Nepal earthquake of April the 25th killed 21 people on Everest, making it the deadliest day in the mountain's history. It was never closed for business, but increased risks brought about the cancellation of every campaign. Usually, around 500 people per year make the summit, which sounds like a lot, but it's a number that'd fit on two regular-sized London Underground trains, with everyone sat down and seats spare for discarded Metros.
And here I am, planting a flag into a mound of snow and rock at almost nine kilometres into the sky. I step to the edge and look down, and down, and my knees just threaten to go, a little, before my brain kicks in: it's okay, it's fine, you're in London, standing on some carpet. This is all in your head, essentially. But my head has never felt like this when playing a video game, even one in VR.
'Everest VR', first look
"It feels like you're brain hacking, making something like this," says Reynir Hardarson, the co-founder of Icelandic studio Sólfar, the team behind the incredible virtual reality experience of Everest VR. "We don't really know what discoveries we will make, with VR. It feels like we're poking into the brain."
While I know that what I'm seeing isn't real (I mean, it's realistic enough, based on 300,000 images of the mountain, built in Unreal 4 and powered by computer hardware with more numbers attached to it than I can make any sense of, and made in partnership with fellow Reykjavík company RVX, the special effects house behind the Everest movie of 2015), it impresses on more of a physical level than any VR game I've had the pleasure of lately. I've been Batman, investigating a murder using my array of gadgets; I've been the pilot of several space fighters and the commander of a battle tank, obliterating foes both in the air and on the ground. I've scored points aplenty, but these typically game-y creations can't compare with how Everest VR leaves me feeling. I leave the mountain genuinely moved. I felt as if I'd touched something rare, and very special, even though my hands were simply grasping controllers, and my fellow climbers, whose shoulders I leaned on and hands I shook, were merely ghosts in the machine.
"There's something it triggers in your brain," says Hardarson. "It's this strong, emotional sense. And that's a lot stronger than I thought I'd see, before some people tried this. You feel the presence of people and objects in this experience; you sense that they're close to you."
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Hardarson tells me about people who've got down on their hands and knees while in the simulation, which is demoed for press types like me at the Royal Geographical Society using an HTC Vive rig. Some people have refused to cross certain points of the simulation. They're perfectly safe of course, and they know it's not real; but when you're looking at a 70-metre drop into an abyss, with only a ladder between you and a fall (that will never come, honestly, now), your eyes can begin to play wicked games with your grey matter.
In my demo, I tackle the tricky vertical rock face of the Hillary Step on my way to the peak, and after conquering it Hardarson points out a secret ledge, just off to the left. I teleport to it – you can't walk everywhere, naturally, given the limitations of the physical space the Vive is set in, a three-by-three meter square. "Look down," he says, and I do. And there's that sway again. I look back at the Step's approach, a narrow ridge passable only in single file. Some of my not-there-at-all buddies are there. I instinctively wave. But it's okay. They're busy. Busy not dying.
We've all died in dreams, but there's no such risk in Everest VR. While it could have gone in a video game-like direction, Hardarson's team quickly realised that just being there was enough.
"When we started this, we thought it would be more game-y," he tells me. "But this is closer to dreams, than it is to games – it allows you to control a dream world. It's about interacting with that world, touching that world, moving it around. It's about toying with it, but not scoring points. So I think we're already seeing that games, like first-person shooters, won't be the killer app for VR. It's more about experiential software, the dream-like qualities of the experience."
I immerse myself in "the luxury version" of Everest VR, but it's built to be explored using sit-down VR hardware, too. "The really compelling thing, though, is to walk across the ledges," Hardarson admits. "It's better when you step to the edge and look down. So it does work when you're sitting, but it's not the same."
This flexibility of delivery, across different VR platforms and set-ups, makes Everest VR an attractive addition to museums, universities, libraries, you name it, any place of education and/or enlightenment. "We've shown it to the people here, at the Royal Geographical Society, and they're super into it," Hardarson says. "We've had people do it who've been up Everest for real, and their reaction is... Well, they find it hard to describe. It's very surreal to them. They say it's really close to the real thing."
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It's a romanticised version of the real Everest, granted: there are no queues to take on the ascent, no rubbish scattered across the slopes, and the VR mountain isn't a frozen tomb for close to 280 fallen climbers. (Search all you like, but you'll find no dead bodies in this simulation, a "conscious decision" for its makers: "We want to respect the mountain.") But for someone who is never going to be there in person, this is as real as the top of the world will ever get.
And this is where the true immediate future of VR lies, I think. Games will always be there, of course, and will grow in quality as VR matures. But to see your dreams play out before your eyes, to go somewhere both very real and yet entirely out of reach, is something else, something universal, something that people of every age, background and ambition will want to experience. This is virtual tourism meeting its most epic potential, and the sort of project that really isn't for the players, but for the people.
Find Sólfar online here. Everest VR will be available commercially later in 2016.
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