In the heart of the RGS-IBG headquarters in London, in the prestigious Map Room, watched over by portraits of the great and good of exploration’s past, sits a magnificent plaster model of Mount Everest. It’s a gloriously detailed three-dimensional depiction of every crag, every ledge, every precipice and crevasse, a study in white that for most visitors to the Society, bar those lucky few that have braved the mountain’s reality, is the closest they will ever get to exploring Earth’s highest peak (Chimborazo’s claim notwithstanding).
But now another form of reality is ready to give us all the chance to share the wonders experienced by Hillary and Tenzing, Mallory and Irvine, Messner, Bonington et al. albeit without the years of training and the ever-present danger of frostbite, hypothermia or worse. The most that will befall you in Everest VR is the danger of looking slightly foolish in front of a crowd as you publicly flail around in a world only you can see.
Virtual reality is the Next Big Thing. Having spent years being little more than a technological sideshow, a touted pipe dream of the future with little in the way of commercial traction, suddenly immersion headsets are popping up everywhere in the entertainment market. Computer gaming is leading the way, as so often with new technology, but where entertainment leads, education so often follows.
‘It’s like a second generation of maps,’ muses Dr Kjartan Emilsson, CEO of Sólfar Studios, the Icelandic team behind the simulation. ‘There are two parts to it. Just observing the mountain from above, for somebody that is thinking about climbing they can look at the routes and see that it’s possible to go here or there and things like that. But then we also had the opportunity to have a few climbers who have summited Everest go through the experience and it was interesting to see their reaction. It must be doubly emotional for them as they probably won’t ever go back [to Everest] and maybe the experience they had while climbing was fuzzy because of a lack of oxygen, tiredness and so on, so now they can put themselves back there and experience it differently.’
My own experience with this virtual mountain took place just a couple of dozen feet away from the RGS’ scale model, upstairs in the Lowther Room, surrounded by towering bookcases filled with the history of human exploration. Emilsson and Sólfar’s Creative Director, Reynir Hardarson, were here to show their efforts to the press and as I entered, the rather disconcerting form of what looked like a heavy metal fan wearing a full-face novelty motorcycle helmet flailed around in front of me, oblivious to the presence of anyone else (he turned out to be a journalist from Vice UK coming to the end of his session).
Virtual reality is a strange concept. Before you try it, you convince yourself it can’t possibly work the way it’s promised. Despite everything Hollywood tries to imply, there’s just no way that an artificial simulation piped straight into your head can possibly remove you from the real world, surely? But then you slip the helmet over your head, place the headphones over your ears and with the flick of a switch, reality goes on holiday.
Unlike staring at a two-dimensional screen, being completely enveloped by a digital environment does startling things to your brain. ‘It’s a trick,’ Emilsson explains afterwards. ‘Once you reach a certain level of immersion the brain is going to just patch up the rest. But you have to reach that level before it happens. When it does it’s kind of magical because then everything looks natural. It’s the same in movies and books. When you’re passionately reading a book you become so immersed in it that you create the environment in your head. It’s funny how it works. I’ve talked to people that have gone through the Everest experience and they were describing the boots that they were wearing! I told them “There were no boots!” The brain does a lot of strange things.’
The experience begins as a sort of standing floatation tank, a darkened menu area with different sections of the mountain ready to jump into. Everest VR doesn’t simulate the entire climb from base to summit. Instead it presents a selection of ‘highlights’ to work through – base camp, the Hillary Step, the summit, etc. – along with a diorama overview that you fly around like some kind of mountain god or, indeed, visitor to the replica in the RGS-IBG’s Map Room, the difference being you can swoop right in and examine nearly every rock in detail.
However, choose a section, base camp say, and after a moment’s darkness you’re suddenly there, really (unreally) there, the wind wailing around you, snow flurries blowing across your eyes, fellow climbers conversing. It’s a startling, astonishing experience.
It’s also one that simply wouldn’t have been possible more than a year ago. Previously, virtual reality was limited to giant ‘cockpit’ rigs with limited fields of view and disappointingly low resolution visuals. Arcade games with a bit of flair, nothing more. But home computing power, especially in the gaming field, has progressed so far recently that videogames have graphical processes that rival the biggest budget Hollywood films, and hardware manufacturing has developed to the point that companies like Sony are about to sell full VR helmets to Playstation gamers for less than $350.
‘It [technology] has reached the point of the uncanny valley, where you actually can recreate a sense of immersion where your brain stops wondering where you are, stops thinking that you’re in this room but are somewhere else,’ says Emilsson. ‘I don’t think that level of immersion was attainable before.’
There are still limits. The unreality wobbles a little when it comes to movement. You’re limited to a 3x3 metre square at any one moment, although a handy little ‘teleporter’ device lets you jump around within the larger environment. But as with the ‘phantom boots’, once you’ve jumped a couple of times, your brain just accepts it and you start to wonder if mountain climbing really is as simple as this in real life.
Except just as I’m lulled into this false sense of security, Emilsson presses another switch (in the interests of time, I’m being given a quick tour of the software rather than being left to my own devices, just as well as I’d probably still be in there now), reality jolts and I’m suddenly no longer at the foot of Sagarmatha but nearly 8,000ft up on the edge of an alarmingly narrow ledge and being urged to walk along it.
And it’s right there that the power of what I’m experiencing hits. I know – know – I’m standing in the Lowther Room. I know – know – there isn’t really an unsurvivable plummet literally inches to my left. But my brain won’t accept anything other than what I’m seeing. On a screen you could just look away and normality would be instantly restored. But here, wherever you look the environment is there, fooling your senses into believing that with one wrong step it’ll all be over.
So I nervously edge along, attaching a virtual crampon to the thin rock ledge on my right, being very careful where to place my feet that I later know weren’t there but that right there, in that moment I would swear I am seeing on the crumbling snow beneath me. Afterwards I ask Emilsson whether anyone has ever, you know… jumped? He thinks for a moment, then says ‘No, it’s honestly never happened.’
Let’s be clear. Everest VR isn’t a game. It’s an experience. A lovely moment of removal sees you flying to the summit of the mountain while a voiceover reads quotes from real climbers against a stirring soundtrack. You glide above computer climbers below you, all around the scenery that only a few thousand in real life will ever have witnessed glistens in the sunlight. This isn’t a game, it’s closer to a virtual documentary.
‘Everest is something that fascinates a wide range of people and we figured out that when people buy this kind of [VR] setup, they will want to share with their family and friends an experience that shows it off,’ says Emilsson. ‘Everest is something you don’t really have to explain to your mother or whoever.’
For that to be possible, Sólfar has needed to make the experience as accessible as possible without complex gaming aspects that would limit both the immersion and the audience. ‘The way I’ve been thinking about it lately is that it’s like that feeling you had when you were a kid and you got an illuminated globe,’ he continues. ‘It’s a thing, a thing that you interact with. It’s a virtual object that you go in and there are certain parts of it that immerse you in certain situations, and then there are the other parts that are like Google Maps but from the inside.’
Eventually my time draws to an end. A genuinely moving moment at the top of the world with a dramatic closing narration, yet more stirring music and a setting sun presenting a view that no humans would actually have ever seen (‘at least none that have come back,’ remarks Emilsson) and the world literally fades to black. Off comes the helmet, back comes reality and with it a thousand possibilities for where this technology can go from here.
I mention my virtual documentary thought to Emilsson. ‘It can definitely be evolved more towards that,’ he says. ‘The interactive map will have infographic overlays on it to show you the different paths or historical places. Just from presenting information I think VR can be interesting. For us it’s more of a question of how does this evolve? We have to release it now although we have thousands of ideas we’d like to add to it.’
There’s a future here beyond pure entertainment, that’s for sure. Places such as the Natural History Museum are already trialling things like this (a recent virtual reality Great Barrier Reef event took visitors into the heart of the natural wonder) and as the technology continues to evolve, the possibilities can only get more intriguing.
During the day, aside from the press, much of the RGS-IBG staff apparently couldn’t help but peek heads around the door and try it out for themselves. ‘We’ve had a lot of feedback from the RGS-IBG here,’ Emilsson confides, ‘taken a few people through it and we want to donate a system to them so they can play around with it and give us some ideas.’ With the plaster map in the room below us having taken visitors closer to the legendary mountain for so many years, somehow a VR experience of the same thing sitting next to it just feels like a natural next step.