Merrell’s Capra hiking boot promises to be the most technical hiking boot the company has produced to date, so they wanted a proper simulation of what the shoe could do. The problem is that suspending people thousands of feet on a rickety bridge, or crossing a thin path through a mountain, presents an expensive insurance risk.

The company turned to VR instead, launching Trailscape at Sundance Film Festival in 2015. Through the Oculus Rift, Merrell allowed visitors to step into the experience of wearing the Capra at its most extreme.

Trailscape VR Hiking Experience

The exhibit consisted of a small obstacle course that utilized VR to enhance the user experience by simulating incredible stunts and dangerous predicaments. AdAge called it the first of its kind, a true “walk around” branding experience based within Virtual Reality. For those seasoned hikers out there, you know that sometimes a hike leads you into interesting places that go off the beaten path. Sometimes, even the trail can present serious hazards like narrow pathways or high elevation.

To accomplish the feel of danger in that self-contained space, Framestore and Hill Holliday (the companies behind the development of the project), sought the most immersive medium possible. They created a kind of soundstage, with motion tracking sensors that would allow users to orient themselves within a virtual world.

The stage was divided into two main segments: bridge and rock wall. 4D mechanisms around and below the bridge allowed for some shaking effects. Combined with the visuals, users were avoiding a gaping hole in a rickety wooden bridge as wind rushed past and shook the bridge.

After crossing, and breathing a sigh of relief, they stop to take in the spectacular view. The cool air hits their face, birds fly past, the ground shakes and a rock slide behind them completely wipes out the bridge they just crossed. Left with no other choice, they must push onto a narrow pass with a long way down. Sidling inch by inch, the simulation allows for real anxiety of heights and the fear that comes from slipping.

Tricking the Brain with VR

VR works by blocking out your other senses, or preoccupying them to be more accurate. Mostly sight, which is where most of our interpretation of the world comes from. We rely on sight for everything from verifying the food we eat is safe and tasty to avoiding dangers on the highway.

When you commandeer that particular sense, you can play around with touch or smell or hearing to add some extra effects. Good sound design allowed users to hear wind whisp past, and the crumbling of rocks as the cliff above gave way. That extra sensory enforcement is like a trick on the brain that makes the experience feel very real. Almost Matrix-like.

Another key element is 4D technology, which you might have experienced at your local theater if it happens to host D-Box seating. The experience is designed to simulate the action behind the film. It might lift you gently and make you feel as though you’re in a hovercraft taking off, or rumble with an earthquake or shockwave on screen. In Trailscape, 4D was used to simulate a bridge swaying in the very heavy gusts of wind that are common at higher elevations.

Tracking is also extremely important, because anything less than perfection will cause motion sickness. The user must feel true 1:1 motion within the virtual world, something that isn’t always easy or affordable at the consumer level.

Next-Level Advertising

Trailscape shows the power of VR as a storytelling device. Credit: Framestore

Merrell’s plan was to create an outdoor experience that would motivate people to get out and try their own adventure. Using VR, they were able to safely simulate an incredible hike not possible (or advisable) in real life.

Virtual Reality is just that: an alternative to reality. As the technology behind this motion-based VR grows, we’ll see more installations like Merrell’s that are easy to access. One perk behind what Merrell and Framestore built is that the installation is portable. Everything appears easy to load into a truck and cart around the US, so hopefully Trailscape makes a stop in your local area and you get the chance to try it out for yourself.

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