The last time I climbed a mountain in sub-zero temperature as snow flurries flew by face and my vital organs felt like it was seconds away from giving out was never, but there I was at the summit of Mt. Everest anyway, mere minutes after driving through the gridlock traffic in Los Angeles.
I’d ascended the world’s-highest mountain faster than it took me to find parking in the building where Kjartan Pierre Emilsson, the mind behind Sólfar Studios Everest VR experience, waits in an empty room.
With my expedition essentials still conveniently stocked at a sporting goods store, I embark on my pilgrimage equipped with slacks, dress shoes and an HTC Vive strapped to head. This is when I’m immediately transplanted from a calibrated room the size of a wrestling ring to the borders of Tibet and Nepal.
I begin to control my view of the jaw-dropping peaks by simply moving my head as soft-music plays in my headphones; the panoramic views are vivid; looking down brings butterflies; climbing a ladder feels weird, yet fun as you hear the creaks; tip-toeing the mountain’s edges triggers fear; the emotions are real; I respect the mountain. But everything is OK once I aimlessly approach the room’s wall, a green grid appears in my goggles, and I remember this is all fake.
Much like the expected coming-out party for the industry, Everest VR is due in 2016 on all major platforms. Emilsson believes Everest VR checks a lot of boxes in the virtual reality gamut. It’s educational, experiential, and from a brand recognition point of view, Mt. Everest is something everyone can identify with, making it easy to explain the product. “It attracts a large demographic group, and not only hardcore gamers. Your mom and dad will even understand it because it’s a known entity.”
Sólfar Studios is currently building out the capability with key moments in the scripted experience, which is expected to elapse anywhere from 90-to-120 minutes. The company teamed up with Icelandic special effects company RVX, who already holds credits in the movie “Everest“ that debuted in September. Leaning on RVX’s expertise with the mountain allowed for the acquisition of more photo-realistic models and data.
“An important part of VR is feeling immersion and being able to affect the world that you’re in,” Emilsson says. “Virtual tourism is going to be a powerful aspect of VR. We always try to make the environment the interface in VR where action triggers the experience,” he says.
Emilsson is a physicist who has a PhD in chaos theory and started dabbling in gaming 20 years ago with multi-user virtual experiences on the Internet. He’s now going all-in with VR.
Another project for Sólfar is Godling, scheduled for release in 2016. In this experience, you’re a toddler god born into a natural environment and begin to explore a world where flowers are as big as trees and snails are as big as houses. It was presented at E3 this year.
“Since nobody really knows where the virtual reality market is going, it’s important not to wager everything on a single type of product or experience. The jury is still out on what will be the killer app for VR. The evolution will lead to a more mobile experience likely in the headset alone. There’s still a long way to go to make this perfectly accessible.”
For a small company in an emerging market, Emilsson is taking a step in the right direction in his quest to reach the top of the summit.