I’m sharing an upwardly-moving gondola with the Finnish ski team. We’re surrounded by Instagram-ready mountain tops covered in beautiful white snow. The Finns though, have seen it all before. They’re far too busy cracking jokes, fist-bumping, and enjoying each other’s company to notice the stunning scenery. It feels weird to be sitting amongst such esteemed company, but I try my best to act like it’s no big-deal.
Before I know it, the gondola ride is over and we’re looking down at an elite-level slalom course. The Finns, for some reason, seem to have got it into their heads that I’m a far better skier than I actually am. I want to tell them they’ve got the wrong guy, and that I’m not who they think I am but the words don’t come out. And then, it just seems to happen. We’re off, skiing down something much steeper than the far less stressful slopes I’m used to. My heart rate goes up a gear.
A member of the Finnish ski team, who I didn’t catch the name of beforehand, is ahead of me slaloming with all the skill and technique I would expect from someone who gets paid to ski. Amazingly however, I’m somehow keeping up with him. I’m skiing better than I’ve ever skied in my life, weaving between gates at speed, and feeling like a bonafide mountain god. The Finn can’t get away from me. This is it, I think. I’m going to ditch my life as an action sports and adventure hack, and trade it all in for a shot at Olympic glory.
We reach the bottom of the run, and the Finns waiting for us at the bottom of the slope celebrate with me like I’m a fully-integrated member of the team. My insides do somersaults. Has everything I’ve ever done been leading to this one wonderful moment? It’s hard to say. And then, just as quickly as the dream appeared, the illusion is shattered and I go crashing back down to earth with a bump.
“Tea? Coffee? Water? Is there anything you’d like to drink?"
The world goes dark, and the peaceful sounds of the mountain fade out; replaced by the far less tranquil plate-rattling reality of the cafeteria I’m sitting in. I remove my headset, and headphones, and let my eyes adjust to the bright sun that’s pouring in through the windows.
“I’d like a tea, please," I say.
Either side of me on the table, studying my reaction closely, are Henry Stuart and Kathy Boyce. Henry is the CEO/Founder of Visualise, a production studio specialising in the creation of world-class virtual reality experiences and films; Kathy is the Communications and Marketing Manager. The pair have kindly agreed to meet me at their gloriously hip headquarters on Hanbury Street in East London.
"It will be your very own Matrix-moment."
The building Visualise occupy is called Second Home, a place where creatively-minded entrepreneurs and businesses can come together in the pursuit of great work and exciting projects. From the outside, it looks a bit like what I imagine people in the 1950s thought the future would look like. As I’m here to discuss the potential impact virtual reality could have on the future of action sports, this retro sci-fi style setting couldn’t be more fitting.
The prospect of virtual reality going mainstream, and taking the world of action sports along for the ride, has been on the table for a while now. In July 2014, Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook bought VR pioneers Oculus and their Oculus Rift headset for an eye-popping two-billion dollars. At the time of the acquisition, Zuckerberg said: "Mobile is the platform of today, and now we're also getting ready for the platforms of tomorrow."
With Facebook officially on board, tech-innovators, idea-thinkers, futurologists, and money-people everywhere were lining up to carve themselves a slice of the VR pie. And, as with so many technological innovations in human history, the porn industry was one of the first to explore its possibilities. However, as many action sports enthusiasts will no doubt testify, fantasising about things that are unlikely to happen in real-life is not just a pastime of serial masturbators and sex-flick connoisseurs.
"Frighteningly, the whole thing is wired up electrically so it buzzes you different places as you’re doing stuff."
Who, out there, hasn’t watched one of Candide Thovex’s viral ski videos and dreamt of being able to do even half the stuff he can do? Who hasn’t sat back in awe and watched Danny MacAskill push back the boundaries of possibilities on a bike, and imagined what it would be like to be that good on two-wheels? Kriss Kyle, Tony Hawk, Travis Rice, Jenny Jones, Steph Gilmore, Kelly Slater, Rachel Atherton, Billy Morgan; they’ve all done things that the majority of us mere mortals will never have the pleasure of experiencing first-hand. And that, it’s thought, could be where virtual reality steps in.
Despite the hype though, doubts remain that virtual reality will ever be able to fully replicate the adrenaline-inducing thrill of action sports, and the genuine sense of freedom they can give you. We asked Henry and Kathy about this, to find out whether they think an artificial simulation of an outdoor activity could ever be as good as the real thing.
“As soon as the headsets are released this year, you'll be able to do almost photo-real VR experiences. And in terms of how you control that, this comes down to what we call the input methods. At the moment, there aren't that many but Oculus are planning to release these hand controllers so at least, you know, you can do something with your poles but it won’t be skiing as you know it," Henry says.
“For that," he adds, “you’re going to need some kind of boots that are strapped on, or whatever, to give you that authentic feel. That stuff is called haptics, and that’s when you start to attach these peripheral devices that can even give you feedback, and resist you, and so on. This is the future, and it’s maybe four or five years away. We have this suit, for example, which you can put on. It’s actually something they’ve just put on Kickstarter called a Tesla Suit. Frighteningly, the whole thing is wired up electrically so it buzzes you different places as you’re doing stuff."
Kathy joins the conversation: “There are these things called Omni-Directional platforms where you’re able to able to mimic the motion of walking, or running. And again, to add onto what’s already been said, I think it’s all about adding these additional interactive technologies to the overall package to create this 4D, genuinely immersive, experience."
“So you just went down a slope, skiing slalom with one of the Finnish Alpine team from the Olympics. We’re talking top, top, skiers," says Henry. “In the activation, they’re going to have a rumble platform. You’ll stand on it, and the whole floor will rumble as you move along skiing. And then they’re going to blow cold air at you as well, so that as you’re going down the slope you’ll really feel the speed physically."
Underlining the idea that we don’t just experience the world through our eyes but with our bodies as well, Kathy then says: “So there's this simulation where, you know, there's a bicycle and you've got this headset on and you're on a bike and again...you're pedalling along a track so it is all about adding these additional elements to make everything as believable as it can be."
We move our discussion onto the visionary thought that virtual reality could be a great entry-level tool for people who want to get into action sports but are unconvinced that the cost, of say a snowboarding trip to Japan or a surfing trip to Hawaii, will be worth forking out for.
“If you haven’t skied before," says Kathy, “and you think you want to but are looking at a minimum £1,000 investment for a week with all the hiring and what-not, the chance to experience a teaser and see if it’s really for you might help you make a decision and get you off that fence you’re stuck on. If you can be exposed to an authentic interpretation of that initial thrill and excitement you get from action sports, you’re more likely to go and want to try it for real."
"...it’s actually going to be one of the biggest social enablers of any technology in history."
Try-before-you-buy destination samples, experienced through the medium of virtual reality, is currently an area that the tourism industry is looking to explore. The thinking behind it being if you can see what your proposed holiday will be like, by actually walking around and interacting with it in a fully-immersive VR environment, you’ll be far more confident when you part with your cash that you’re making the right decision. I wanted to explore this idea further, and asked Henry and Kathy whether virtual reality ski holidays could one day become a viable alternative to the real-world ski holiday.
“You know, I think it could do," says Henry, “Although, I think what’ll probably happen is that people will quite quickly cotton on to the idea that it doesn’t need to be the same as real-life to be as good. So like with that mini-skiing trip you just did, why not just put a canyon in there that you can jump over and then land? I think virtual reality will end up being more game-ified than real-life...just inherently. Everyone’s going to want to do something more fun, or add something more ridiculous to the normal experience."
Henry continues: “I do wonder if it could ever fully recreate real-life. I mean, I guess it depends on how quickly haptics come along. There’s a lot that needs to happen first in order to really fool you. There’s a thing called ‘presence’ in VR. Presence is when your body is fooled into thinking you’re actually somewhere else. At the moment, you get it in very fleeting moments where you lose yourself in a really good piece of content. But, at this stage, there are too many things that are presence-breakers. Low resolution, imperfect sound insulation, the comfort of the seat you’re sitting on and a reminder of the real world underneath it."
“As the headsets, technology, and content moves forward, eventually it’s going to get so good. It could get to the point where you’re looking through that lens and you think, ‘God...I can’t see the pixels anymore.’ The sound will be absolutely authentic, everything will become so like reality, even the coldness of the wind or whatever it is, that you’re then totally lost. And if that happens, it will be a frightening moment because you’ll start to question what’s real and what’s not. It will be your very own Matrix-moment."
Critics of virtual reality have spoken about their concerns that the human race could be heading to a situation where The Matrix might morph from science-fiction popcorn entertainment, into a startlingly accurate prediction of our future. The idea that people might lose themselves, Inception-style, in artificial realities might seem unlikely but the potentially addictive feeling of being somewhere more interesting than the real world has precedence and is very much a talking point as we move forward technologically.
“So, look," Henry says, “Imagine World of Warcraft in VR. Already, at this moment in time, it’s something kids play for days on end on their computer screens. There are stories of people dying while playing it just because they forgot to eat and drink, so take that into virtual reality and if it’s good enough people are going to want to stay in there. I don’t think it [virtual reality] is always going to be a good thing [in terms of] how it’s used."
“We’re all going to have to feel our way through it. But especially, and this is the inherent problem of something which is so impactful, and VR is that intense, that good, that it is going to be addictive. Really addictive. And that’s something we’re all going to have to watch out for. Nobody is going to want to go into a fake fictional world and ski slowly. You’ll want to go off jumps, and know immediately what points you got for pulling the trick. Virtual reality won’t be like reality, it’ll always be better, it’ll always be more exciting."
“The danger is that people will plug in, and check out. And they’ll have so much fun, and do so many incredible things in this virtual world, that...you know...why would you even come back to the real world? But I don’t actually think that’s going to happen. You just need to see how the Wii, for example, was used for fitness. The same thing could apply for VR. Imagine exercising, with celebrities, in beautiful places. Or, say you’ve got an exercise bike. Put on a VR headset, and race the Tour De France against friends...socially."
This idea of virtual reality being a social affair, rather than the exclusive pastime of lonely people in their bedrooms, is something I decide to discuss further with Henry and Kathy as it’s not something I’d ever considered while thinking about immersive technologies.
"Virtual reality won’t be like reality, it’ll always be better, it’ll always be more exciting."
“The social aspect is one of the things that surprises people most about VR," says Henry. “Everyone sees it as inherently isolated but it’s actually going to be one of the biggest social enablers of any technology in history. What people have to get their heads round is that you don’t have to see the real person for it to be social. There’s going to be 3D scanning, that will allow us to upload our bodies and faces and this will be your Avatar."
“You’ll have a perfectly real version of yourself represented so that, whenever you do anything in virtual reality, like when you go to a sports event you’ll be sitting on the sidelines and watching a live game or competition in a 3D space with your friends. So, as an example, I’ve got this friend who loves cricket but he lives in Australia. Watching the Ashes on the sidelines with him, using the VR headsets, would be absolutely amazing."
It’s clear, just from spending a short amount of time with Henry and Kathy, that virtual reality has the potential to massively influence our lives in the 21st century. Imagine, for example, attending Big Air competitions in the States with a bunch of your freestyle snowboarder mates from the comfort of your own living room. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to lay down your own version of ‘One Of These Days’, but don’t have the necessary courage or skills to do so? Dry your eyes, mate. Through the medium of virtual reality, you might just be able to turn your wildest action sports fantasies into a quantifiable reality.
Nobody, of course, knows exactly how action sports and virtual reality will be correlating with each other ten years from now. However, with Visualise having already worked with numerous high-end mountain athletes; it seems clear that the formation of exciting partnerships between your favourite people in action sports and VR content creators is very much on the table.
I finish my time with Kathy and Henry by immersing myself in a 360-degree tennis lesson with Tim Henman and Lindsay Davenport, before wrapping things up with an immersive Kasabian gig at Brixton Academy. The lyrics “...messin’ with my mind, I wake up," which feature in the band’s hit song Club Foot, have never felt so meaningful.
For more on future, check out the Mpora Future Issue.