How One Company Is Using Virtual Reality To Inspire Exploration Of Remote Areas

Solfar Tech/Shutterstock

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At the intersection of technology and engineering, you’ll find Virtual Reality — the much-buzzed about tech that will eventually be so cool that we’ll all Matrix ourselves. These days, most VR is a static, stereoscopic film which allows you to visually explore a single spot. The future of VR is more than that. It’s a fully immersive experience in which you can run, jump, climb, swim, fly, study, and research through space and time.

In this new VR-era, Sólfar Studios is blazing the path. They’ve built a VR world where you can viscerally explore Mount Everest, right now. The Everest VR experience from their studio allows the VR user to feel the wonders of being at Everest’s base camp before actually climbing the mountain in real time. You can take steps, cross rickety ladders, and even leave offerings on Buddhist altars.

It is so immersive that even though you’re virtually standing on the precipice of a virtual cliff on virtual Everest, you end up with real vertigo (it’s true, we tried it).

Sólfar Studios isn’t trying to replace travel with mathematical algorithms and world-building technology. Their aim is to inspire the next generation to travel for scientific research (and high adventure) and to build the technology that will transport us to places we can only dream of seeing.

We sat down with Thor Gunnarsson the co-founder Sólfar to talk about his app. We touched on the development of the program and how its going to change the way we learn, travel, and explore.

Can you tell us a little about Sólfar?

We are a studio that I founded with a couple of other guys from CCP Games. Our focus is exclusively on VR experiences and VR games. We set out to try and create some standout experiences in the early days of VR and then add games to the mix as we go along. But Everest VR is our first commercial project, and we’ve been working on bringing that to all of the high-end platforms over the past few months.

How did you choose Everest? And then how did you execute the program?

The story behind the making of Everest in VR is kind of a serendipitous one. We are very good friends with a guy called Dadi Einarsson. He is the founder and creative director of a visual effects studio in Iceland called RVX. When we were starting they were wrapping up post-production on the film Everest directed by Icelandic film director Baltasar Kormákur. As part of that production, they had created an incredibly detailed CGI version of the mountain using a process called stereophotogrammetry. That is a technique that uses standard SLR photographs and composites as many photos as you can capture into a software pipeline. That creates a 3D model of the environment that you’re capturing.

What they had done as part of the film production was actually collect both by shooting on-site but also from other sources, they had collected a database of about 30,000 images of the mountain that they had used to create portions in very high detail. We thought that it would be an amazing experiment to see if we could actually repurpose that asset and then work into an environment that could be rendered in real time in VR and then layer on to that interactive experience and create basically a replica of what it feels like to summit Mount Everest.

Because it’s such a massive experience and it’s so in-depth, I imagine the server’s like the size of a warehouse. How big is this program?

The original asset was absolutely huge. We were working with a model that — in its original state — had resolution down to a few meters, so it was absolutely massive. The creation of the 3D model and then stitching the photographs back onto the model to create that near photoreal experience was pretty intense. Effectively, we had to use a supercomputer to process the imagery to create the 3D model. Then there was a fair amount of work to clean it up and light it and to create the ultimate experience.

Our work technically was also to really simplify the model and the rendering load down to a state where it’s actually run on a high-end desktop PC or high-end gaming PC or laptop. That was a fair, fair amount of technical work and some interesting software approaches that we used to actually make that happen.

We’ve been pretty pleased with the results. We saw really that our key objective, which was to create that all-important sense of presence or immersion, really succeeded with the project so that we find that people feel as if they have actually been on the mountain.

It’s kinda shocking how real it feels when you’re on the mountain. I used to kinda dismiss the, I guess, realness of VR in general. Then I got vertigo when I was standing on cliffs and ridges. It was a rush.

That really is the magic of VR when it’s done well. You forget that you’ve actually been transported to an impossible place like Everest and just start to take in the sites and experience some of the aspects of climbing a mountain — not least of which is a deep feeling of vertigo that many experience when they’re crossing the Khumbu Icefalls or making their way along the single-file ascent on the Hillary Step.

I think one of the things for me that made it even more real was that you interacted with people in the VR. There was always somebody there. If you were just on your own, it would feel weird. How did you guys decide to include the guides and cast that? Were they based on real people?

Good question. We tried to create members of the climbing party in as much detail as we could to try and exactly get that sense of other people in the climbing party with you, like the Sherpa who are guiding you through the climb. What it also allowed us to do was to convey some of the human aspects of experiencing the mountain. Such as being there with members of a climbing party who are all going through that slightly vicarious attempt that, personally, I’m not sure I could actually pull it off. But the fact that people actually do this in the real world is always amazing to me.

We tried to just use techniques that you would see from films, CGI production, but also from game developments, where of course creating believable characters in the scene is a hallmark of a good development project.

You have this big platform now in Everest. There’s this sense now with VR becoming more visceral and a lot more accessible that you can start going places you wouldn’t be able to go before. Do you guys feel like this could be a future segment of the travel industry, or is your focus more on it being a future section of the gaming industry? Is it both?

It’s kind of both. I think with Everest specifically as our first project, we found this kind of idea that you could create experiences and environments that feel real enough that you feel as if you’re there. It definitely throws up all kinds of possibilities for virtual travel and tourism. But also educational uses.

How are you accomplishing that?

For example, we have a segment in Everest VR where we layered in photographs from the 1963 British expedition with Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summiting Everest. We do that in an interface that we call God-Mode that allows you to follow the climbing route in VR of that expedition and actually see photographs, color photos, that are actually from the original expedition. It’s almost like a documentary overlay on the VR experience itself.

I think that the project points to the promise of VR to convey these sorts of experiences. I think we will see many, many more of these over the coming years. In fact, we know that there are many teams that are almost in a virtual line grab, if you will, traveling around the world capturing these places and then creating experiences like we did with Everest.

Having another ‘person’ in the VR experience was great but it was still just a construct. But let’s say my buddy and I want to go to Everest together. I’m sitting in Berlin and he’s in LA. Is it going to be a possibility that we can go on the virtual trip soon?

That’s something that we’re actively working on for upcoming projects. We believe that social VR is where this stuff really, really takes off. We’ve seen both in our own experiments and in projects from companies like Oculus — really good demonstrations in this capability. We see that the presence of another human being in the VR simulation with you just completely changes how you perceive the whole experience. It becomes more real.

So will that work? Will you then have to load a body scan to create your avatar?

Even just having accurate head tracking, hand tracking, and 3D positional audio of another person with you in the scene is enough. It’s not even sometimes necessary to do a fully-articulated avatar — as you see for example with some of the non-player characters in Everest. You can do it almost with an abstract interpretation of a person in the scene with you. It just adds a tremendous amount overall to it.

Again, we think that from our experience creating MMOs, the reality of video games is that the most powerful ones are usually about connecting you with other people. This sort of single-player video gaming scene is a fairly recent development. Historically humans used to play games for entertainment with other people, chess, Go, et cetera. I think our world is coming more and more back to that with video games, and, certainly, VR will be even more focused on that over time because it just is fundamentally different to feel the presence of another person in the world with you.

Absolutely. Looking at it that sort of way, there are so many cool trips that you might not necessarily have the time or money to do. You know, walking the El Camino takes six weeks. Not everybody has six weeks on their schedule. Theoretically, you could do one weekend at a time over the course of a year. Is that what you guys are looking into next?

It’s something we may turn our attention to again in the future. Everest was a pretty big project for us as our first calling card. Our next project will be I suppose a more conventional video game in VR. The guys at RVX who co-produced Everest with us are working on more of these real world settings in future projects. And from what I’ve heard, there are a number of companies that are working on these sorts of experiences that we’ll see cropping up over the next year or two.

You can imagine that the real opportunity for these VR destinations is really conveying places that many of us will never have the opportunity to travel to ourselves and in some cases maybe shouldn’t travel to these places. Places like Everest are wonderful, but they’re also at risk of being overrun by real adventure tourists. If you think about how VR can actually give some of us the chance to live vicariously in these places but perhaps never go there ourselves, that might not be such a bad thing.

Yeah, I see where you’re coming from there. I look at this experience as not replacing travel but stoking interest in travel by going to the places that are inaccessible like Antarctica. Then instead of going to Antarctica, you might just go to northern Canada. Or, as in this case, go and climb Mount Rainier instead of Mount Everest. So no one is really looking for this to replace travel wholesale. It’s just to stoke people’s interest in travel, right?

Absolutely. I think that there will be two categories of people that experience these places in VR. One, a group of people that will find the VR experience sufficient. Then others will be inspired to take up exploration and mountaineering and this kind of adventurous bent. I think kids that experience these places in VR, many of them will grow up to actually travel there themselves. I think it’ll be two reactions if people have this kind of standout VR experience. I think both are equally valid, and we’ll see much more of that over time.

Yeah. If you can get somebody to travel and educate them at the same time and give them a visceral experience, that sounds like a win.

Yes, absolutely.

It seems to me like it’s going to become maybe more a tool for the travel economy as opposed to anything else. This is what it’s like to fly around the world on a plane, or this is what it’s like to walk the El Camino, or this is what Antarctica’s like. Which is fascinating, because it whets your appetite.

Exactly, exactly.

What have the reactions been from people who have actually climbed the mountain?

We’ve got a real kick out of showing the project to real explorers who have actually been to these places. I think for me, personally, that is probably one of the most gratifying aspects of working on this. We reached out to climbers who had actually summited Everest. Almost invariably the reaction was, “You’ve basically taken me back to a place I never thought I would visit again.”

We had Rebecca Stephens [the first British woman to summit Everest] test it out. She was on the summit in VR looking around, obviously very emotionally impressed by the experience. She said that she had more time in VR to take in the sights and take in the Himalayas than she did when she was climbing.

Obviously, when you get to the summit of Everest you don’t stick around for long at all. Your body is suffering from extreme duress at that altitude and you have to turn around and start walking back almost immediately. In VR, you can actually kick back and relax and take in the sights, and that was her comment coming out of the experience. That’s been super gratifying to get that feedback from people that have been there, to get the confirmation that something we created has that very similar realism that we aimed for when we set out to create this.

Plus the price point’s a lot more affordable than actually going there.

It is. A few bucks is definitely a big difference from the tens of thousands that people are paying to make it to the top of Everest, absolutely. Not to mention the fact that you may actually not make it back.

You can check out Sólfar Studios’ Everest VR on Steam, Oculus, or Viveport.