Virtual Reality Enters the World of Outdoor Sports

words :: Cassidy Randall

You walk from the boot room of the plush Canadian Mountain Holidays’ Cariboo Lodge into the crisp winter morning, snow blanketing the ground in blinding contrast to the impossibly blue sky. You hear the excited chatter of your fellow skiers as you follow the guide to an awaiting helicopter and step inside. The doors close and your heart rate accelerates with the roar as the heli lifts off, buzzing 3,000-metre peaks at eye level before landing improbably on a narrow ridge. Kneeling in the machine’s shadow, the rotor wash of snow engulfs you as the chopper departs, leaving your little group alone and blissfully small in the huge landscape. Moments later you are chasing your guide down the alpine flanks of a dramatic peak on the ski run of your life, snow billowing behind, whooping in joy.

But in fact, you’ve never heli-skied, you’re nowhere near the Cariboos, and everything you’ve just experienced happened inside a virtual reality (VR) headset.    

Is this real life? Or is this fantasy? Tom Ritsch is in the zone regardless. Photo: Grant Gunderson

CMH’s Lines of Sight, the revolutionary VR heli-ski film, made its debut in select ski resorts last winter. The immersive experience brought the reality (so to speak) of heli-skiing to people who’d always assumed it was gnarly by nature, and the company saw booking requests skyrocket as skiers understood the activity in a whole new light. Although VR heli-skiing is not easily accessible to the masses yet—unless you have your own VR headset—the film is a glimpse at the technology that may totally change our relationship to skiing. 

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“The point of the medium is to open the door to a whole new world for people who’ve never had that experience,” says Steve Henderson, director of photography on the film by Sherpas Cinema. “Even if they can’t afford it, viewers get an unprecedented peek into what skiing’s all about. It allows people to think about an alternate way of living life. If we can inspire ten city kids to get outside, the world might end up being a better place.”

  But what about people who are already avid skiers? Could VR help them understand the line, landing and the speed required to finally drop that cliff they’ve been scoping for years? Henderson thinks we’re fairly far off from that kind of application, but some may point out it’s already been in use for years with the original VR: video games. 

Ben Stoddard is co-founder of Session Games, a company that makes action sport video games, including for skiing and snowboarding. He believes that VR can help shredders expand their horizons. “When you’re playing these games for skiers, it trains you to look at all the angles, lines and possibilities that are available,” he says. “Even the ones outside of your physical limitations.”

Before creating video games, Stoddard designed terrain parks (Whistler Blackcomb was an early client). “I’d go out and build these crazy obstacles because I was inspired by seeing what was possible in games.” 

The mechanism of helicopters dates back to 400 BC with bamboo flying toys in china, but it wasn’t until 1939 when the first single-rotor chopper designed by Igor Sikorsky took to the skies.

Stoddard believes that sort of horizon expansion will continue accelerating as VR takes hold all around us—and in ways that might not be as obvious as video games with controllers or immersive films requiring headsets. 

Consider for instance, smartphone apps like the new navigation tool Boonmaps. It uses current winter imagery in a high-resolution, interactive 3-dimensional map, overlaid with local trails and landmarks. Features include the functionality to change lighting conditions in the map based on time of day, and the option to take a fly-through tour of the area to understand where you’re going and what to expect. Like Google Earth VR  (which requires a headset), apps such as this might be the most immediate way that VR will impact skiing, with the ability to feel out a landscape or objective before actually heading into it. 

For now, CMH has no plans to release another VR ski project, having set the bar so high with Lines of Sight, but they do see possibilities for similar films to introduce people to other hard-to-grasp experiences, like their Via Ferrata climbing tours. And while golfers have had “hole browser” videos for years,  when it comes to other potential applications for VR to expand the world of skiing, snowboarding or other winter sports—as Stoddard says, “The options are unlimited.”—ML