Talking about sex, it’s said, is like eating a menu. Strapping a virtual-reality headset to your face so you can feel what it’s like to dangle from a cliff, thousands of feet in the air, seems like a similarly frustrating proposition. All the same, that’s exactly what was happening at the North Face store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on a recent Friday.
Two years ago the outdoor gear and apparel company became a pioneer in the use of VR as a marketing gimmick. It teamed up with the daring cinematographers of Camp4 Collective and Palo Alto-based VR camera and software company Jaunt to produce a short-form experience for its in-store shoppers, though the 3D video is also available for desktop, smartphone, and headset. These days, North Face has company in the virtual world: Moosejaw, a Michigan-based retailer with a national presence online, offers a branded cardboard viewer and VR app, as well as 360-degree videos on its website. Both companies’ offerings follow athletes into the field as they attempt exploits most of us probably wouldn’t dare on our best day.
At the North Face shop, a staffer helps you into your Oculus Rift headset, as well as a separate set of midrange earphones. You’re then guided to a hollow, egglike chair (explorers of a certain age may feel less like they’re about to enter the mountains than Woody Allen’s Sleeper), where you select and boot up your video using a sequence of too-small buttons on the visor. The first segment, Climb, runs three minutes and takes you along with climbers Cedar Wright and Sam Elias as they scale rock faces in Yosemite National Park and leap into a canyon in Moab, Utah. Their parasails take a suspenseful second or two to pop open, and it’s in the moment before they do that you might gasp. Climb is like a music video except that the lead singers do BASE jumps instead of stage dives. Despite the occasional glitch, you can’t help but look all around—there ought to be a word (pecking?) for the jerky head movements one makes while examining an abyss that isn’t there. The short film made its debut at South by Southwest in spring 2015 and already feels a little dated.
A second release, Nepal, is more of a compressed travelogue, following two mountaineers through Kathmandu, across lower Khumbu Glacier, and up Lobuche Peak. More (calmer) gasps emerge as you look out from the “roof of the world,” a breathtaking view despite not being, in the immediate sense, real. Still, Nepal would benefit from sharper storytelling, fewer logos (North Face, but also Jaunt, the VR studio), and more drone footage so you can peer over the edges of everything. The VR gold standard seems to be realism, but why stop there? Maybe North Face will get a little more adventurous if it shoots a third: Filming has been put on hold while the company prepares for its 50th anniversary this month.
Naturally, some might argue that using VR to venture outdoors is antithetical: Isn’t the whole point of getting outside to unplug and awaken the senses we evolved to survive in the wild, not stare at screens? That may be true, but two generations of ski and surf porn, IMAX, and the exploding library of GoPro footage make a strong case that video can immerse you in an experience you aren’t really having and leave you stoked to have one. Early 360-degree movies such as The Polar Sea and Climbing 1 World Trade Center: Man on Spire, and even these North Face and Moosejaw entries, suggest VR need not be a substitute. It can be an appetizer. And it might even let us perform feats we never would have if left to our own devices.