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I Tried It

I crashed into a South American mountain and lived — without ever leaving my couch

Virtual-reality tours are the new 'travel'

By Stav Dimitropoulos

In the past week, I have floated inside the International Space Station, kept calm on glass suspension bridges in China, looked three-feet-tall Mini Lili in the eye onstage at Cirque du Soleil, and swum with sharks off the coast of Hawaii. By the laws of nature, it’d be impossible to squeeze all these trips into one week. But not by the laws of the virtual reality headset I’ve used, from my couch, to explore the great outdoors and beyond.

I am fairly convinced that, should there be life after death, future VR technology that taps all five senses will be how it feels. Until then, I am headed to Laguna Sucia, a desolate, stunning lake at the base of Monte Fitz Roy, Patagonia’s most famous mountain landmark, on the border of Chile and Argentina.

Patagonia is also the name of the app that’s taking me on this trip, created by developers Michael Breer and Luke Farrer of Specterras Productions. Breer and Farrer narrate the virtual trip, explaining what I’m seeing through the headset and describing their actual visits to the places I enjoy with a simple jerk of my wrist and a controller in hand.

It all happens on an all-in-one Oculus VR headset, which currently costs about $400 to $500. Patagonia, one of several programs that runs similar virtual tours, costs $3.99 to download. “We could have charged more, but it seemed more consistent with our mission to make it obtainable to a larger population,” Breer tells me.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, industry experts were raving about how virtual reality would reshape the travel and tourism industry in the years to come. With the COVID-19 virus still spreading, and people in many countries unable to travel, it seems safe to multiply that prediction about VR travel many times over.

Immune from consequences, I steer myself to crash into Monte Fitz Roy.

And if my experience at Laguna Sucia is any indication, the public will be pleased. With the headset over my head and a little game controller in my right hand, I gaze into the turquoise glacial lake from the ridge above. I can swipe my thumb on the circular pad on the top of the controller to move in any direction I want, spinning 360 degrees to see blissful, snow-shrouded plains, naked granite mountain walls, and rugged peaks of the warmest orange jutting skyward. I want to fly.

And so I do. Pressing and holding the controller’s trigger button suspends me in the air. I’m experiencing humanity’s primordial fantasy — but I want to stretch the delusion farther. Immune from consequences, I steer myself to crash into Monte Fitz Roy. As the peak draws menacingly near, I feel alarmed, but the lack of the terrifying speed and deafening mayhem that would accompany such a fall in real life leaves me a bit detached. The app protects me, turning off fly mode moments before the “crash.”

I return to a bird’s-eye view of the landscape. From high above, the lake seems a bit pixel-esque. Green dots, dozens of them, are scattered around the scenery. They are simply different points from where I can enjoy heart-stopping 360-degree views. I just need to hover the controller over the dot for more than a second; the dot pops, and two breaths later, I am there.

Where should I go first? Hmm. It’s hot outside and I need some ice in my life. I pick the glacial plain to my right and descend to utter whiteness. Did I feel chills in my fingers? I again tele-transport. 

The shores of Laguna Sucia are one dot away. I point and descend, and the lake seems less like a sketch as I approach. I hear water gurgling. I land on a rock, and the lake’s translucent turquoise and smooth surface push me into a Zen-like state. Small chunks of ice float on the water. The sun is shafting through the lake, patches of which have taken on a silvery-golden hue. Looking skyward, I notice that cobalt-blue halos have formed over Fitz Roy’s steepest peaks. The sky is deep blue. I am in nirvana, but I quickly escape as I notice the rocks around me, ochre-colored and irregularly shaped. My subconscious imagines mice skirting between them. I need to “walk.”

When wearing a VR headset, you can sit in a chair, stand up, and even walk (if you have cleared off chairs, tables and other objects in your vicinity). At one point, the trip’s narrators explain the labor they undertook to create the app, including the hours of hiking and the equipment they hauled up and down the mountain to study details of the tour’s inaccessible points.

In VR, there is no such thing as a gravity-ridden human body in need of food and water — and there’s no such thing as time. In Patagonia, I can seesaw between sky and land, night and day, and all of the compass points. After a lot of space-hopping, enjoying more panoramic views, I point to a dot that takes me to a small plateau, where the narrators have camped out for the night. It is 3 a.m., and the night sky is pierced with stars through and through. The occasional crackling and rumbling of the Patagonian ice disturbs the silence. Serene, I follow the fringes of the galaxy in the dark sky and decide to call it a day.

As I return to my last bird’s-eye view, I take in as much of Patagonia as I can. Unlike other travels of mine, I don’t feel sad to be leaving this stunner. A three-hour charge of my headset can always take me back.

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Stav Dimitropoulos is a writer based in Athens, Berlin, and New York.

Image via istock

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