I'm in São Paulo, Brazil, standing on a dusty path edged with lush green foliage. Excavation tools are scattered around the remains of a campfire. Turning my head in one direction, I can peer down into a sunny valley. In the other, my sight line slams into a sheer cliff with inscriptions on its face. The sounds of singing birds and wind in leaves rustle in my ears. It's been twenty minutes since I left my office in Durham.
The scene would be perfectly ordinary if it weren't for this and a few other things. There's that floating green head up the path, beckoning me to follow, and the floating checklist it notionally carries. There are strange voices coming from somewhere, explaining esoteric points of motion tracking and photogrammetry, but I can't see anyone around. And that rustling breeze? I can't feel it. I can't even see my body when I look down.
Then, when I stare at the campfire, it blazes to life and night falls in an instant, the stars wheeling in the sky.
When I remove my visor and earphones, São Paulo vanishes. Now I see Regis Kopper and David Zielinski in a nondescript campus office, jammed with computers and peripherals. I had reached out to them right away when the INDY decided to do an Outdoors Guide. After all, it's not like you have to go outside anymore to have an awe-inspiring experience in nature, and no one was better equipped to show me one than the caretakers of Duke University's ambitious virtual reality enterprise.
After years of false starts, the consumer market appears ready for virtual and augmented reality. The former term refers to completely immersive simulations; the latter to composites of the real world and digital objects or information. New York Times subscribers got a cardboard visor that turns their smartphones into VR goggles so they can watch video journalism from the inside. The Oculus Rift, the leader of the new wave of VR gaming headsets, should be the hot Christmas gift this year (at least for people with $600 and a good computer). Augmented reality has been implemented as disastrously as Google Glass and as successfully as Pokémon Go, which is actually getting gamers outside—even if they're taking it in through the small windows of their phones.
The simulation I just exited was built for the Oculus Rift, but it isn't a game, and it's not for sale. Instead, it's what Kopper, the director of the Duke immersive Virtual Environment, or DiVE, calls a cyber-archaeology project. It was funded by the Brazilian government and made for education and research, in collaboration with archaeologists at the University of São Paulo.
"The ultimate research goal for this kind of technology is for archaeologists to be able to experience a site without going there, and to have the ability to compare side-by-side different stages in an expedition," Kopper explains. "That's something you'd never get otherwise, because you excavate a layer and then it's gone."
The site, down to its ancient wall carvings and other items of archaeological interest, was captured using laser scanning and photogrammetry, which allow for highly detailed and accurate 3-D modeling. The simulation looks more like a video game than photorealistic, but it feels real because it integrates your movements—some of them, anyway. You can turn your head to look at any part of your digital surroundings, but you can only move to a few different locations, activating tools and artifacts with your gaze to learn more about them. This limited mobility isn't a technological deficit; it's part of the software's educational goal.
"This guided experience is not that different than a visit to a restricted site," Kopper says. "The fact that it's guided allows you to easily reach all the important parts without getting distracted by things that don't matter."
Still, I do get distracted by things that don't matter—the shapes of the rock formations surrounding the path, the intricate patterns of light in the leaves, that feeling of being outside and wanting to look at everything. This isn't a world of stock images; it's a real place rendered stem by stem. I want to walk around, but instead, I look at a ladder and silently zoom there, as if floating. The dissonant sensation of your perspective moving while your body stays still is not a simile for anything. It's something new and unique in the human experience. It feels like being a ghost.
This Oculus Rift simulation isn't on public view, but natural environments can be explored in the actual DiVE, an even more impressive way to experience VR, which I visited a few years ago ("Virtual Wonderlands," November 27, 2013). You enter a ten-by-ten-foot cube of rear-projection screens, surrounded by images turned three-dimensional by your goggles, and use a Wii-like wand to move through boundless environments and manipulate objects. You can see your body, which reduces the disorientation—even though you still have to remember not to physically walk into the scene.
Anyone can experience the DiVE at its open houses every Thursday from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. It's a lot of fun, but it also represents serious research objectives for Duke.
"My research really touches on, 'What is VR good for? What applications can have a benefit?'" Kopper says. "I believe VR can be really helpful for training. You have high-fidelity simulation that's controllable and repeatable, and most importantly, it's safe." I recall the DiVE simulation for training mine rescuers I experienced, something that would be hard to safely simulate in real life.
"And think of hazardous waste removal, firefighting, maybe even training police to de-escalate things," says Zielinski, the DiVE's research and development engineer. "Not to mention all the medical applications. We can potentially give people training beyond looking at a textbook."
We discuss VR's ability to create first-person spaces that integrate far-flung sites, its potential to allow many people to visit delicate restricted sites without destroying them. The conversation strays to VR in art and into the future. Zielinski recently spent a week demoing the São Paulo project at a computer graphics conference in Anaheim, California, and he says several museum curators gave him their cards.
"People might one day use VR instead of having to schedule an appointment with a realtor," he muses, gathering steam. "Go to the website and strap on goggles and get a tour of the whole house."
"But I think there's a limit to that," Kopper cautions. "VR is complementary to what we have, but I don't want to replace it."
Indeed, virtual reality is a fascinating new way to get outside, but it's a place to go, not a place to live—a different class of experience than feeling the coolness of the breeze on your face and the simple orientation of your feet to the earth.
This article appeared in print with the headline "How to Go Inside Outside"