Mixed Reality: A Portal to the Planet’s Spectacular Sights

By Stephanie Walden, Contributor

If you’ve ever wanted to free-climb El Capitan, hang with penguin colonies in Antarctica, or go cage-less diving with sharks, but lack the risk tolerance to pursue such activities in the real world, mixed reality can take you on a vicarious adventure. While quarantine due to coronavirus concerns continues, there are ways for augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) to take us where we’d like to be.

Virtual thrill-seeking via AR/VR experiences is more than just fun and games, however. VR and AR as “empathy machines” can play a vital role when it comes to sparking curiosity about the planet and even encouraging conservation.

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The #CleanSeas and Our Ocean Life experiences, for example, deploy AR to help users virtually “clean up” ocean environments via simple gestures and interactions, helping them visualize the impact of plastic pollution by showcasing its direct impact upon marine life. The VR film Tree takes headset wearers on a narrative journey from the perspective of a rainforest tree, letting them “grow” from a seedling to a towering giant. VR has even been used to encourage kids to learn about recycling.

One of the core reasons why mixed reality is an apt vehicle for budding environmentalists is that it’s a more sensory experience than simply reading stats in pamphlets or clicking “donate” online. It can also instantly transport nature-lovers to some of the planet’s most spectacular and far-flung destinations—sans the detrimental impacts of transportation-related carbon emissions, trash, and poorly behaved tourists.

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AR can also bring faraway places straight off the page of a textbook. “Just pointing the app toward barcodes or an image of an interesting location can present a visual of the entire history and events that happened there,” explains Rima Shah, an emerging technologies analyst at Technostacks, an IT company that creates mobile AR apps.

For those craving a dose of the great outdoors due to the current quarantine, there are countless ways to engage with nature from the comfort and safety of home, from digitally diving under the sea to watching cherry blossoms bloom in Tokyo. Here are four experiences that are fitting for the whole family:

National Geographic‘s VR Experiences

National Geographic‘s Explore VR narrative experiences, which are appropriate for teens and adults, provide intimate glimpses into some of the world’s most stunning and difficult-to-access environments like Antarctica’s imposing coastline.

The brand, known for award-winning photography and environmental journalism, released its second Explore VR experience—a virtual tour of Machu Picchu—in November 2019. The storyline put users in the shoes of a Nat Geo photographer, inviting them to capture the virtual scenery via digital snapshots.

“At its core, National Geographic uses storytelling to inspire and empower people to work towards a planet in balance,” said National Geographic Partners Vice President of Visuals and Immersive Experiences Whitney Johnson in an interview. “We employ technology to tell impactful and engaging stories that connect with viewers and encourage empathy, and the National Geographic Explore VR experience lets people become a part of that mission.”

In addition to Explore VR, National Geographic has released a series of other VR experiences via its proprietary apps, available for Google DayDream, Samsung Gear VR, and Oculus Go devices.

Underwater Adventures

Torben Lonne is an avid scuba diver and chief editor at DIVEIN, an online magazine dedicated to diving and helping readers make a positive environmental impact on the world’s oceans. While in quarantine, Lonne has been encouraging his children, ages 11 and 13, to share his passion for the ocean via the VR game theBlu.

“VR is a great way to explore the wonders of our natural environment while sitting safely in our living rooms.”

—Torben Lonne, chief editor, DIVEIN

The adjustment to social distancing, self-isolation with his family, and a mostly indoors environment at his home in Copenhagen, Denmark, has been tough, Lonne notes. “As a scuba diver stuck at home, it was hard to find a replacement that allowed me to explore underwater over the internet.”

When Lonne and his children discovered theBlu, they were blown away. “It’s the closest VR simulation that resembles real diving and snorkeling,” he says. The experience features three 10-minute episodes, including an underwater whale encounter that is “mind-blowingly real,” says Lonne.

Lonne notes that VR is a wonderful way to expose his family to the underwater world while they’re all stuck indoors—and it can also make visiting these environments more accessible to a greater number of people, as scuba diving can be cost-prohibitive for many. “VR is a great way to explore the wonders of our natural environment while sitting safely in our living rooms,” he says. “Scuba diving and exploring deep oceans in real life is inaccessible to the average person, and VR technology now allows anyone, anywhere in the world to experience it.”

When you’ve completed all three episodes of theBlu, there are a variety of other underwater adventures you can explore in VR: Ocean Rift, Subnautica, and FREEDIVER: Triton Down are three popular options.

National Parks in 360

While hopping in the car for a family road trip to Yellowstone isn’t advisable this May, it’s still possible to see some of the most magnificent parks in the U.S. online in an immersive way.

“Natural parks across the country offer digital tours and experiences that one can access anytime from home,” says Technostacks’ Shah, who points out that the National Park Foundation is using social media to share virtual ways to visit scenic areas on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Yellowstone National Park, for instance, offers virtual experiences including 3D models of its famous landmarks. Online visitors can “tour” the landscape’s legendary geothermal activity, such the Fountain Paint Pots area and geyser basins. Another U.S. park, Bryce Canyon in southern Utah, is offering a virtual experience where viewers can admire the starry night sky and meander through majestic canyons on horseback.

National parks around the country are also experimenting with AR to engage the future generation of environmentalists. The AR-infused Agents of Discovery game, for instance, sends players on “missions” throughout outdoor venues around the country. It’s a Pokémon Go-esque effort to get kids exploring outside; there are more than 100 exercises available on the app.

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In response to the coronavirus-related closures of many outdoors spaces including national parks, the app recently launched “Mission Mondays,” in which they’ll unveil new conservation-focused experiences each week. They’re also updating game programming to ensure social distancing measures are taken into account.

“Embodiment, or the act of choosing an avatar, can generate powerful feelings of attachment towards nature, causing users to [migrate their] behavioral characteristics from augmented character to actual physical being,” adds Shah.

Explore Faraway Lands—Even Outer Space

International travel isn’t in the cards for the next few months—but VR can take you worlds away without ever having to step foot in an airport.

My Africa, developed by video game company Unity Technologies, is an experience that transports viewers to an elephant sanctuary in Kenya. In addition to being visually stunning, the experience explores the delicate and interwoven threads between humans and wildlife in one of the last places on Earth where massive land mammals roam free.

Unity has also developed a series of immersive experiences in collaboration with BBC Earth called Micro Kingdoms: Senses, which allows users on Magic Leap devices to gain a bug’s-eye perspective of incredible destinations like the tropical rainforests of Central America and Eastern Brazil.

“These experiences have profound uses in educating and bringing awareness to the natural world. Creating empathy is what can inspire us to conserve, protect, and make better decisions for [the environment].”

—Amy Zimmerman, senior producer, Unity for Humanity Program

“We believe the world is a better place with more creators in it,” says Amy Zimmerman, senior producer of the Unity for Humanity Program. The company aims to be a platform where diverse creators can help users develop close connections with the planet via immersive media. “These experiences have profound uses in educating and bringing awareness to the natural world,” Zimmerman adds. “Creating empathy is what can inspire us to conserve, protect, and make better decisions for [the environment].”

While Unity covers the micro-universe with “Senses,” DrashVR is tackling the macro perspective with its Titans of Space VR game. The visual experience includes educational facts and realistic photos and renderings of dozens of solar systems, providing users with yet another perspective of our Pale Blue Dot—which seems somehow even more delicate when viewed from above.