The Growing Relationship Between Screen Time and Your Favorite Trail

There’s an increased connection between nature and technology, but how far is too far?

Many of us seek outdoor spaces as a place to unplug from the constant pull that technology has on our everyday lives. But we’ve all experienced the slow creep of smartphones into the outdoors—the Insta-Snappers posing with a vista instead of enjoying it, the iPhone stereo system blasting from a passing hiker’s pack.

When lawmakers pushed for increased funding toward Wi-Fi in national parks, it sparked instant controversy. Quartz released the article “Democrats want to ruin America’s national parks with Wi-Fi,” and on its Cell and Wi-Fi Connectivity page, Glacier National Park states simply, “Visitors to Glacier will find that cell phone and internet connectivity is very limited. Enjoy the respite.”

Can technology be used to increase conservation and preservation of our wild spaces, or even just inspire more people to get outdoors?

The greatest pro argument for cell service and Wi-Fi connectivity in the backcountry is safety. The ability to call for help in the wilderness, or triangulate a missing person’s location using their cell phone would be invaluable to Search and Rescue. But what about technology as a conduit for exploration? Can exploring a digitally created world provide the same sense of achievement we feel when hiking to the commanding viewpoint of an alpine ridgeline? Can technology be used to increase conservation and preservation of our wild spaces, or even just inspire more people to get outdoors?

Video Games and Exploration

Hiking and climbing are now commonplace in many video games. In Grand Theft Auto V, players have the ability to scale the heights of Mount Chiliad—a stand-in for Mount Shasta. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s Link sets aside his iconic green tunic and dons a climber’s bandana, harness, and carabiners to gain a speed boost to scramble up mountains. Perhaps the most specifically hiking-related game is the critically acclaimed Firewatch, where players inhabit a fire lookout for the summer in Shoshone National Forest.

But can in-game exploration even compare to actually exploring these wild places? To gain some insights, we polled gamers on forums at IGN and Gamespot. For some users, a game’s environment was secondary to gameplay and storyline—they needed incentives to explore. But for a large number of gamers who responded, exploration of the in-game world was a driving force for their playing time. Unsurprisingly, many of these users also identified as avid hikers or outdoor recreationists. For them, discovering the hidden places tucked away in the virtual environment is almost like getting out on the trail.

Rather than compare the good and the bad when it comes to technology, perhaps we should instead consider the possibilities.

Simone Dietzler, team member at Nerd Fitness says, “It sounds silly, but I feel like looking at the game’s [Skyrim] northern lights or watching the snow fall in its mountainous pine forests is almost as good as being there in real life.”

For some, video games act as a substitute. Gamespot forum user “phbz” said that, “Playing this type of game ends up being a way to compensate for day-to-day life not allowing [me] to get on a plane to Iceland every time I feel like it.”

While outdoor recreationists appear to bring their thirst for exploration to the virtual world, the vast majority of users responded that video games have not inspired them to get outside. But some forms of gaming may change that.

Augmented Reality in the Outdoors

The smartphone game Pokemon Go brought augmented reality (AR) to the masses, inspiring users to get outside while increasing time spent staring at their screens. Injuries from playing Pokemon Go became so widespread (yes, seriously…) that the National Safety Council issued a warning: “The Council urges gamers to consider safety over their scores before a life is lost. No race to ‘capture’ a cartoon monster is worth a life.”

While Pokemon Go pro-and-con lists abound online, virtual reality producer Ryan Boudinot doesn’t necessarily see AR in the outdoors as a pro-vs.-con proposition. “I happen to believe that the distinctions we make between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ are themselves artificial constructs,” Boudinot says. “I view technology as one of Earth’s natural phenomena.”

Photo: PeakAR by Salzburg Research

Rather than compare the good and the bad when it comes to technology, perhaps we should instead consider the possibilities. One useful example of AR in the outdoors is an app called Peak AR. Say you’re out on a new trail and want to know the names of nearby peaks. With this app, you can point your phone’s camera at nearby mountains. The live image is overlayed with text, giving you their names and elevations.

Future possibilities are endless. “I would be interested in seeing an AR app that shows you the retreat patterns of glaciers or the effects of deforestation,” Boudinot says. “Imagine putting on an AR device and looking at a mountain range, and being able to see how big the glaciers used to be.”

Virtual Reality: Window to Another World

Similar to AR, virtual reality (VR) is a technology that can be used to explore the outdoors. However, VR experiences typically involve using a headset device to view immersive digital environments. In other words, VR is a window to another world. When wearing a VR headset, your vision and hearing are taken over; you are transported to another place. For example, VR can be used to virtually climb Mount Everest, kayak down 65-foot falls in Iceland, or virtually walk across a Moab canyon via slackline.

Writer Brandon Fralic experiences VR firsthand | Photo: Shawn Whiting

VR experiences are becoming realistic enough to have practical uses beyond fun and games. In Tree VR, the user is transformed into a rainforest tree—experiencing the full life cycle from seedling to slash-and-burn death. VR films like this have the potential to be used as empathy tools, in this case creating a greater awareness of the need for conservation.

Play games for inspiration. But don’t forget to unplug once in a while.

Of course, technology has long been utilized as a tool for conservation. Carleton Watkins’ 1861 photographs of Yosemite introduced the American East to the wonders of the West. “In part because of Watkins’ Yosemite pictures, in 1864 Congress passed and President Lincoln signed legislation preserving Yosemite Valley,” Smithsonian reports. “The law was an important first step in the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.”

If stereoscopic negatives can lead to the eventual creation of America’s NPS, imagine the conservation possibilities of virtual reality.

Exciting as it may be, technology will always have its limitations. Video games and VR simply can’t compare to actually being there. No audio-visual experience can compete with the sensation of feeling a cool breeze in your hair, smelling wildflowers, or tasting mountain huckleberries on the trail. And while AR takes place in real world environments, it can become a distraction from reality. So explore virtually from the comfort of home. Play games for inspiration. But don’t forget to unplug once in a while and, in the words of the Park Service, “Enjoy the respite.”

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