While lurking in the upstairs lobby of one of the enormous Moscone buildings I managed to get some time with Everest VR [official site], a virtual reality project which aims to recreate the experience of ascending Everest. I try not to go into virtual reality with particular expectations but I'll admit that Everest VR was the experience where I was most expecting to feel disorientated. I'm not afraid of heights, but I have previously felt that stomach-lurch in VR that I get in real life when I'm close to the edge of a massive drop and there's nothing that would break my fall.
As it turned out, I just couldn't lose myself in the experience. The technology was really interesting and some of the haptic and audio feedback did a really good job of convincing your body you were completing particular actions. One example on that front was hauling yourself up part of the mountain using two ropes. You would reach up with the controller and grasp the trigger as you pulled down. The vibrations gave the illusion that you were actually holding onto something with a degree of tension and the reaching up to ascend a steep section suited being in a limited space.
But generally it felt to me like the slice of the experience being demonstrated was slightly too big for the physical space as I kept encountering the edges of the real world. When you're wearing the Vive headset and standing away from the walls of the booth you have this view of the Himalayas stretching away from you, but if you come close to the real walls around you the Vive throws up a glowing blue mesh to show you where the wall is and stop you walking into it. The demo started me off in one corner of the space so the first interactive section I encountered showed me the real-life limitations of the space. I then walked to the other corner across what appeared to be a snowy ledge, mere inches wide and, even though it was only for a few seconds, encountered the other walls.
So it wasn't an immersive experience for me in this particular instance but I spoke to Kjartan Pierre Emilsson, the CEO and co-founder of Solfar, the studio who are making the experience in collaboration with visual effects company RVX. I wanted to know how the studio was thinking of Everest VR. The idea is to take the stereophotogrammetry and other data RVX have access to thanks to their work on the movie, Everest, and then curate particular activities and events within that which give a player a taste of what it's like to make the ascent.
"The full product is actually going to be a string of first-person sequences that are all major milestones of summiting Everest," says Emilsson. "Not all of them are vertigo-inducing. What we're really trying to capture is the emotions of doing this and each of the milestones have a different characteristic.
"For example, you start at base camp watching a Puja ceremony that the sherpas do at the start of the season to appease the mountain gods and bless the expeditions. That's more of a moody kind of a morning scene where you participate in doing the offerings to the gods. But then we have scenes like the Hillary Step which is just before the summit and probably one of the most dangerous parts of the climb. Then we have night scenes where you wake up at three in the morning when you actually do a final hike and that's a very serene, moonlit environment. So different emotions and feelings. Our goal is to be faithful to the actual experience so not to introduce too much gaming into it and make it accessible to most people."
As part of the project the developers have spoken to people who have made the climb themselves. I ask whether there were any experiences people talked about which were harder to translate into virtual reality.
"There's one example where, when you go above the Death Zone and you start using oxygen, you still have low oxygen levels. Everything tends to go in slow motion and you move very slowly because you think slowly as well. In VR there's nothing preventing you moving as fast as you want so we're thinking of introducing some mechanisms there to induce you to move slowly. Perhaps if you move too fast you black out a little bit; so after a while you see you need to move slowly. It puts you into the mood. We also use a heartbeat track. People come to empathise with heartbeats and you can influence people like that a little bit. Or shallow breathing."
The altitude also means parts of the experience, particularly the ridge of the summit and close-up areas needed to be hand-sculpted.
"The stereophotogrammetry captures things at a certain scale," says Emilsson, "but when you're really close to the ground you have to design each stone. Also in the case of Everest, the helicopters can't reach a certain altitude so there's no pictures above certain heights except maybe from planes so parts of the actual ridge on the summit are hand-sculpted."
As a last question I ask whether a small initial audience for VR due to the price point and the space required has affected how the Solfar team approaches VR projects
"This is an emerging market and it will take time to mature," says Emilsson. "We're in it for the long run and you have to start somewhere. We'll adapt to the market as it grows but yeah. This is a learning experience for the consumers and designers."