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A new virtual reality piece from the director of 'Everest' could change how we think about VR

A new virtual reality piece from the director of 'Everest' could change how we think about VR
A shot from the new VR experience 'Everest,' made by a pair of Icelandic companie (Solfar Studios)

The user looks down from the rope bridge, aware a wrong step will spell doom. An ill-advised pivot in one direction, or an awkward shuffle in another, ‎and a plummet to the ice-coated rocks hundreds of feet below will commence.

The consolation prize for this encounter with imminent mortality: The view. There are spectacular peaks, stark snowy backdrops and a sky as near as the attic ceiling.

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Hardier souls might stand there a moment, taking in the sights, as the bridge's temporary supports creak and ice underfoot breaks away and falls into the great beyond. This reporter, less aesthetically inclined when a possible death-hurtle is involved, hoofs it across the rungs with a few brisk and body-clenching strides.

Happy to have reached the other side, he feels a wave of relief. Then he spots a giant ladder on the side of the mountain face, stretching heavenward ‎with Jacob-esque loftiness. Those familiar feelings of awe and doom come rushing back.

It is a weekday afternoon in the world's most northerly capital. Frozen peaks and other grand displays of nature sit just a short drive away. Yet I am standing in a sparsely decorated apartment not far from Reykjavik's main square. These are the recently moved-in offices of ‎Solfar Studios, an Icelandic-based startup of so-called "pure VR."

Solfar, in conjunction with an Icelandic visual effects company named RVX, has created "Everest," a piece designed to evoke the soul-stirring beauty – and heart-stopping fear – of climbing the world's tallest mountain.

The piece is nearly full-body — that is to say, leg or hand movements in real life are reflected in the experience. I'm wearing a headset and moving (freely would not be quite the word; perhaps widely?) around a large unfurnished living room, my senses convinced, in ways even VR can rarely persuade, that I am somewhere that is deeply somewhere else.

"EVerest" is the latest experiment in the kind of bold visual content VR proponents have promised. When it debuts on the high-end HTC Vive headset next month, followed by PlayStation and Oculus platforms later this year, "Everest" will use VR to challenge our very conception of what we watch.

A series of five sequential chapters in "Everest" takes the viewer, harrowingly, from just above base camp to the Hillary Step, the final climbing phase before the mountain's summit. And while the level of immersion and participation is on par with some of the world's strongest video games, creators have taken a different path: Rather than build a typical game, in which the object is to finish each level (and the game) as quickly as possible, the idea here is to soak in a real-life place most people will never see for themselves.

"We wanted it to feel like you're the star of a first-person movie and not‎ just someone playing a video game," said Solfar co-founder Thor Gunnarsson, as he led me through the experience. "We wanted to slow it down so you're actually living it." Also, unlike in a video game, you can't‎ die; step off the rope and you'll essentially hover in the air.

RVX is owned by Dadi Einarsson, a visual-effects veteran, and Baltasar Kormakur, the Iceland-based director of last year's adventure-drama film "Everest." But though some of the piece's moments will clearly evoke that movie – the rope bridge, for instance, contains similarities with Josh Brolin's tentative walk as Beck Weathers, in a critical scene – the VR "Everest" is not affiliated with the film.

In fact, RVX and Solfar didn't use any film-style shoots at all in creating their piece. Instead, they relied on a process pioneered by Einarsson, in which still photographic images are animated and brought to life, with digital representations of people dropped in. (You see and interact with them as you move around the mountain.) The piece was created entirely in a studio yet feels as real as anything Hollywood produces.

Needless to say, that raises a few questions about the line between animation and live action, and how to define it in the coming VR age.

The green-screen, of course, has long been a trusty companion of the ‎Hollywood director even in more naturalist films. (The "Everest" movie, for instance, relied on hundreds of visual effects shots.)

But most such films could still be called liveaction under a general definition – there are actors, and locations and crews, and they are moving and acting in real time, with digital effects merely supplementing their performance. What to call the "Everest" VR piece, which looks just as real but entailed not a single frame of video footage? Live-action animation? Photos brought to life with blood-chilling clarity?  Or maybe some new form of VR cinema?

In other words, how to classify something that feels as authentic as anything movies have yielded but was created through the most digital of processes?

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If that wasn't enough to blur the line between natural and artificial, creators aim to build a "VR selfie" component into the experience. Basically, you can take a 360-degree video that inserts you into the Everest backdrop so that it appears you climbed the mountain yourself. (The next time your outdoorsy friend makes a big social-media boast, beware.)

Gunnarsson – bearded, bespectacled and speaking accent-free English – was a principal at the videogame company CCP before founding Solfar. Einarsson has created effects for numerous Hollywood movies, including "Furious 7," "Sherlock Holmes" and "Everest" itself.

Their respective backgrounds may be the reason their creation has the effect it does, "This is a love child of movies and video games," Einarsson said.

Indeed, by re-creating a mountain expedition so vividly and vertiginously, "Everest" suggests, perhaps more than any piece of content about a real-life place made to date, that VR can come tantalazingly close to replicating the real thing; this is as authentic as it gets without strapping on a backpack and hopping on an Asia-bound plane.

It also comes very close to VR nirvana, plunging one into an exotic world (if not, hopefully, a Nepalese chasm below).

One of the piece's final beats is a climb up the Hillary Step. In the film, a character met his demise at this spot, and if users aren't thinking about an untimely Hollywood end, a quick look down will dangle the possibility of their own.

Indeed, early reports on the piece have noted how real "Everest" is (whether transcendent or terrifying  is in the eye of the beholder and/or their capacity for heights). There's already a legend growing around it. A Finnish woman, Gunarrson said, took one look at the daunting rope bridge and sprinted across, using so much velocity that the gear tore from her head. "Everest" is that kind of VR piece. It makes one contemplate subjects like the daunting power of nature and the force of gravity, along with plenty of other big questions.

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