I get down on my knees to examine a sculpture of a jaguar. I see jungle dirt in the crannies. Dead leaves have collected at its feet. I can see it all, right in front of my face.
But my body’s back in San Jose, at the GPU Technology Conference, with a screen strapped to my face and two motion-tracking cameras watching my movements. I’m exploring the latest destination offered by virtual reality company Realities.io, which lets you visit some of the world’s most beautiful and striking places without leaving your living room.
CTO and founder David Finsterwalder made the Jaguar Paw Temple reconstruction just two weeks ago. After flying to Guatemala City, then catching a local flight to the small town of Flores, he and a team from the Global Heritage Fund took a 30-minute helicopter ride into the jungle. Armed with a high-definition still camera and a tape measure, they stayed long enough to take a few hundred photos and record key measurements. They then stitched it all together into a virtual reality for anyone to explore.
Most people who visit the site are archaeologists – Finsterwalder’s original occupation. The Guatemalan authorities do let tourists visit, but unless they take the expensive helicopter they must hike through the jungle for three days. “They want to let tourists go there, but they don’t want to have roads,” says Finsterwalder. “With roads you will have loggers, and this is the last part of Guatemala where the rainforest is really complete.”
Instead of bringing people to such places, his small start-up is bringing the places to people. The Mayan ruins are just one of the destinations on the company’s books. I also explore the ruins of Castle Hohenrechberg in southern Germany and gaze up at the ceiling of 10th century Cluny Abbey in Saône-et-Loire, France. Then I poke around in a room of the abandoned Beelitz-Heilstätten hospital, where Adolf Hitler recovered after being wounded in the leg at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Hooked on realism
I can’t touch the places I visit, but I can teleport around them with the click of a button. Pointing a controller to where I want to go, I zip through the environment. Stone walls blur past as I zoom to the top of Hohenrechberg. There’s a broken beer bottle on the floor and I can see the brand.
“The photorealism hooked me,” says media researcher Xárene Eskandar at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “You can look in holes, behind doors and under chairs.”
I watch other people step into Finsterwalder’s worlds. “Oh my god, oh my god, this is so cool,” says a woman. She gasps in wonder as she looks up. “I feel like I’m really in here.”
Hodson, Hal. 2016. “How to explore Guatemala’s Mayan ruins from 4500 kilometres away”. New Scientist. Posted: April 11, 2016. Available online: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2083848-how-to-explore-guatemalas-mayan-ruins-from-4500-kilometres-away/