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Climbing Mt. Everest in VR is so terrifying that my knees wobbled

I stood on the edge of a precipice, frozen from cold, faced with a terrifying walk across an ice-encrusted rope bridge that was precariously suspended across a crevasse hundreds of feet deep.

My legs turned to jelly, and I almost fell to my knees. I don’t deal with heights well, especially if a single error could result in my untimely death. Grasping the rope to steady myself, I took the first step, my eyes widening as the ice cracked and crumbled off the next foothold. “I’m not sure I want to do this,” I thought to myself. But I didn’t have a choice.

It all began the week before, in the comfort of my home, with the delivery of a wooden crate. Inside was an assortment of mountaineering paraphernalia, including a compass, a thermal vest, and a map of the Himalayas. Digging through, a passport issued by The Virtual Republic of Nvidia doubled as an invitation to an event where I’d experience what it’s like to climb Everest. Not actually climb, because I’m a feeble tech journalist, but climb thanks to the magic of virtual reality.

Base camp

The journey up to London for these shindigs are usually about as arduous as the day gets, but this time, that wasn’t the case at all. Upon arrival at Tobacco Dock — a converted warehouse from the 1800’s that’s all exposed brickwork, iron, and dark passages — I was handed a thick jacket that not only doubled my size, but also tripled my body temperature, plus a pair of trousers so enormous they’d make a clown blush. “It’s cold in there,” I was informed.

I tentatively walked out onto it, slowly edging along the footholds ensuring I didn’t plunge to my doom.

Once I was bundled up, I was hustled through a side door into a tunnel-like room, and greeted by a cheery — and similarly attired — man who said, “Welcome to Base Camp!” It became obvious why I needed the extra layers. The room was freezing. There was even fake snow on the ground, and an eerie blue light gave everything a wintery feel. An HTC Vive headset was handed to me, a pair of headphones put over my ears, and two controllers placed in my chilly hands.

Then it began. I was suddenly gliding over the Himalayas, the wind howling through my ears, and a voice over explained what I was seeing. It’s not like watching a documentary. You’re right there, and able to gaze upon a sight the vast majority of us will never, ever get to see first hand. The scene faded, and as everything came back into focus, I was looking at that dreaded rickety rope bridge.

Engrossing

It’s no exaggeration that my legs wobbled, and no lie that I tentatively walked out onto it, slowly edging along the footholds ensuring I didn’t plunge to my doom. In front of me was another climber, beckoning me across. If I didn’t go, I wouldn’t see the summit. For those 10 seconds, I was walking across that bridge near Everest’s summit. The experience was true enough that VR fooled my brain into thinking a virtual world is real. It was terrifying and fantastic.

Nvidia’s intention with this demo was to show exactly how immersive VR can be, especially when combined with the right environment. There was a crunch under my feet, my hands were at first cold, then clammy from the nerves, and I was wrapped up like, well, like someone going up a mountain. It was astonishingly effective.

If you’ve haven’t tried a fully immersive VR experience yet, you’re in for a treat. It’s so engrossing, so utterly convincing, your mind will race with the possibilities and potential of this astonishing technology, and afterwards you’ll excitedly recant tales of the experience to everyone you know. Then you’ll want them to give it a try, because the awesomeness is near impossible to describe.

The demo was no half-hearted affair either. It was created using more than 300,000 photos of Everest, then modeled using Unreal Engine 4 by Sólfar Studios and RVX, the latter being responsible for the amazing effects in the movie Everest. This goes a long way to explaining how real it all felt, and a strong indicator that movie studios may take VR very seriously in the future.

The future

The rope bridge was just the start. My next challenge was to ascend a ladder than extended up a sheer ice cliff face. To do that, I’d have to use the Vive’s controllers to haul myself up. To fully understand how complete the illusion was at this point, when I started out, I actually raised my leg as if to stand on the ladder’s first rung. To the Vive’s operators, and the person videoing my escapade, I’m sure I looked utterly ridiculous. Not that I cared, because I certainly didn’t want to fall!

I got to climb Everest, scare myself stupid on an imaginary rope bridge, then shoot down aliens like Han Solo.

Contrary to how it probably sounds, this wasn’t my first VR experience. I’ve been lucky enough to use Oculus Rift, Sony’s Project Morpheus (as it was at the time), Gear VR, and HTC Vive itself. The fact that it still literally makes my knees wobble is a testament to VR’s brilliance, and ability to beguile and convince.

Nvidia hosted the event to show off how its GTX 970 and GTX 980 series graphics cards can handle VR using the HTC Vive. An all-too brief, and incredibly exciting, demo of Elite Dangerous using the Vive was enough to persuade me I should buy a decent gaming PC ahead of 2016, when VR will really take-off. The terror of Everest was long gone, replaced by exhilaration during a tumbling, dizzying dogfight with enemy craft high above a planet’s surface. Frontier, the developers of the game, are justly proud of the fact it’ll be one of the top game titles available for VR-capable hardware.

Thanks to the power of VR, I got to climb Everest, scare myself stupid on an imaginary rope bridge, then shoot down aliens in space like Han Solo. The day was already an epic tease, made worse because it was just before the HTC Vive’s launch was delayed. However, there’s no doubt it’s worth the wait. To me, virtual reality is the most exciting piece of tech innovation I’ve seen in years.