Grand Canyon National Park. Photo credit: Jason Thompson on Unsplash.
Virtual Reality and the Movement Toward New Conceptualizations of Wilderness
Communication & Education
December 2022 | Volume 28, Number 3
Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-simulated environment using graphics and specialty hardware that allows for a person to control their point of view and creates a “completely immersive and realistic experience” (Meta Quest 2021). It is through this technology that people can access wilderness and natural spaces without ever having to physically enter those areas or, in many cases, even leave their homes. VR also allows us to perceive and experience wilderness without having to endure the dangers and physical challenges that it presents. This technology creates a more physically, financially, and temporally accessible wilderness and opens remote spaces to those who without this technology would not be able to access these protected areas.
“VR’s experience-sharing capabilities have changed and will continue to fundamentally change how people conceptualize wilderness, and how they choose to interact with both real wilderness and VR wilderness.”
Despite these sharing capabilities and the semi-realness of experiences in VR, many push back against the idea that VR wilderness could be comparable to an experience in an all-natural setting. VR is an interesting contrast to wilderness precisely because of this argument: that VR wilderness is not real wilderness, no matter how real it feels. But why is this? Characterizations of wilderness like ‘grand’ or ‘peaceful’ can be matched by VR; the visualizations that this technology can create allow the user to stand in grand environments, perceiving themselves as completely alone with the natural world. Technology has changed how people have interacted with wilderness in the past, and VR’s experience-sharing capabilities may fundamentally change how people conceptualize wilderness and how they choose to interact with both real wilderness and VR wilderness.
To understanding how the advent of VR wilderness is changing our conceptualizations of wilderness, this paper addresses several questions:
- What are the experiences of people entering into the natural world using VR?
- Are people satisfied with VR wilderness experiences?
- Does VR challenge or augment our previous conceptions of wilderness?’
VR wilderness allows for users to experience feelings often associated with real wilderness and grants access to notions of wildness, grandeur, and other ideals usually reserved for those who can physically, financially, and temporally make their way into real wilderness spaces. This capability of VR wilderness reiterates the societal need for preserving real wilderness spaces in perpetuity and connects us with deeper ideals about wilderness, culture, and perhaps, ourselves.
The definition of wilderness is nebulous. It is shaped by time, culture, and many other things. Narrowly defining wilderness is unproductive because wilderness is an idea that reflects the ever-changing ideals of society. Roderick Nash’s book, Wilderness and the American Mind, examined how Americans’ perceptions of wilderness changed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries (Nash 2014). Nash discussed Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold, and introduces us to the relationships and disagreements between these thinkers. Bryan McDonald, who wrote Considering the Nature of Wilderness: Reflections on Roderick Nash’s “Wilderness and the American Mind” in 2001, critically reviews Nash’s book and the continued relevance and impact of his ideas (McDonald 2001). McDonald notes that something missing from Nash’s discussion is a conversation about the negative effects of American conceptualizations of wilderness on Indigenous peoples (McDonald, 200, p. 193; Spence 1999). McDonald also notes that Nash does not completely explore more modern conceptions of wilderness (McDonald 2001, p.197). Additionally, Catanzano (2020), critiques the fact that it was “written from a perspective that privileges well-off highly-educated city-dwelling white males and has a general disregard for religion’s role in fostering wilderness appreciation”.
Nash and his critics, however, are not the sole contributors to this conversation. Hawes and Dixon (2020) argue for a definition of wilderness that focuses on recognizing wilderness’s experiential and ecological values, as well as the value imbued in it by Indigenous people. They take their argument a step further by making remoteness a defining characteristic of wilderness (Hawes & Dixon, 2020 p.23). Their argument takes us to a past definition of wilderness that focuses on solitude and a distinct lack of people but augments it with the recognition that wilderness is not synonymous with ‘untouched’ (Hawes & Dixon 2020, p.29).
What appears to be the case throughout these works is that the definition of wilderness changes overtime, but many have tried to root their understandings of wilderness in notions of solitude, physicality, grandeur, beauty, and a distinct lack of humanness. Despite the nebulousness of its definition, however, is generally agreed that wilderness is outside. This is one of the ways that VR wilderness augments our understanding of wilderness: technology has evolved in such a way that a clarification of wilderness as a space that requires physicality and being outside is necessary. Real wilderness is not necessarily something that you can fully experience from your living room couch. It impacts your body and requires a commitment of time beyond just putting on and taking off a headset. However, VR gives people access to feelings that are associated with being in wilderness and can imbue its users with notions of beauty, grandeur, and awe that are deeply attached to experiences in real wilderness. This is part of how VR challenges our conceptualizations of wilderness: it allows anybody (that is, anybody who can afford the technology) to access wilderness spaces, albeit secondhand and virtual wilderness spaces, from their living room and experience feelings often associated with real wilderness.
Progressing Technologies and Wilderness
VR is not the first time that wilderness has been challenged by a new technology. Consider, for example, the automobile. In Windshield Wilderness: Cars, Roads, and Nature in Washington’s National Parks, Louter (2006) guides us through how automobiles changed national parks in Washington State. He discusses how conceptualizations of wilderness have changed from something that was scenic and roadless to something that necessitates that use of roads in order to allow people to access the scenery (Louter 2006). He argues that cars have been an integral part of how people experience national parks and how these experiences impact the degree to which national parks are considered wilderness by the public (Louter 2006). Similarly, Sutter’s (2007) Putting Wilderness in Context: The Interwar Origins of the Modern Wilderness Idea, discusses how automobiles (in ways similar to VR) made wilderness more accessible, and in some ways changed how people understood and conceptualized natural spaces. These two works introduce us to the ways that technology, specifically the automobile, can impact our understanding of wilderness; however, technology that allows us to access these spaces has since advanced and requires our attention.
Video games, for example, are an important first step into understanding how people are accessing second-hand wilderness using technology. They give us insight into how technology can allow access to a wilderness experience that is unlike those from paintings or photographs. Specifically, Brooks (2021) points out that videogames were one of the first second-hand experiences that allowed for the user to be an active participant. Sheu (2019) argues that video games are simply a different way of experiencing nature. She focuses on how players of The Strike, a fishing video game, were able to use the game to experience nature in ways that were previously unavailable to them (either due to inaccessibility of natural spaces or a desire not to be outside) or to augment their participation in sportfishing (Sheu 2019, p.802).
VR takes the virtual wilderness experience a step further by creating a fully immersive, multi-dimensional trip into a version of the natural world. These capabilities can connect people both to VR wilderness and, importantly, real wilderness. For example, Yeo et al. (2020) suggest that VR was the best way of ‘delivering nature’ to participants via technology. They discovered that participants were more likely to feel like they were in a given location if they were in simulated nature using a VR experience versus on a television or through 360 Video (Yeo et al. 2020). VR was also the technology that increased people’s connection to the natural world the most, meaning that after a VR experience, users were more likely to feel at one with nature (Yeo et al. 2020). Chan et al. (2021) also argue that a VR nature walk (in their case, a walk through the forest) can increase one’s connection to the real natural world. White, one of the authors of the 2021 paper, notes in an interview that VR might “help encourage a deeper connection to nature in healthy populations, a mechanism which can foster more pro-environmental behaviors and prompt people to protect and preserve nature in the real world” (Kingsland 2020).
Experience and Emotions with VR
Emotions associated with people’s wilderness experiences are an important part of how we connect to the natural world. When someone thinks back to their experience on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or at the top of Pikes Peak, they will remember their encounters with wilderness as being tinged with feelings of awe, wonder, and inspiration at the grandeur of such spaces. These feelings may be inextricable from experiences with real wilderness. It is the ability to replicate these feelings that make VR important. This technology can and has been used to replicate wilderness experiences and, importantly, the feelings associated with those experiences by allowing for people to be an active participant in a more accessible, albeit virtual, wilderness space. These emotions are important because feelings like awe and wonder, the feeling of being so small in such an important and grand place, can connect people with themselves, with their culture, with wilderness, and with the world.
Emotions resulting from our experiences in wilderness are an integral part of how people interact with the natural world. These feelings are not reserved for experiences in real wilderness. Users of VR wilderness have been found to experience feelings similar to those felt in real wilderness. Harrison et al. (2015) examined risk perceptions in wilderness and found that people can and do perceive risk when in VR simulations. Stepanova (2021) also found that those in VR wilderness can experience feelings of awe and connection and changes in their perspective.
VR wilderness, however, can do more than just elicit emotions. Several authors have discussed the healing possibilities of VR wilderness. Aubrey (2019) outlined how VR wilderness has been used to change how patients were perceiving pain and to lessen their overall pain levels. Carey (2019) further suggests that VR nature can not only make wilderness experiences more accessible, but that VR can be like real nature in its ability to heal. Browning et al. (2020) argue that VR wilderness scenes can benefit mental health, and Gordon (2020) discusses the reductions in anxiety, confusion, hostility, and depression that patients using VR wilderness can experience.
Older Adults and the Disabled Community
The experiential and healing capabilities of VR create a virtual wilderness that appears to be like real wilderness insofar as VR’s ability to generate a memorable experience. VR wilderness can grant people access to feelings and emotions that have typically been reserved for those who have been able to make their way into real wilderness spaces. Older adults and the disabled are two communities whose presence, experiences, thoughts, and attitudes are prevalent in conversations about how VR can be used to increase accessibility to wilderness spaces.
George Hetrick, an 87-year-old man, had dreamt about seeing the Grand Canyon ever since he was a kid (VR Scout 2021). Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic, health issues, physical impairments, and his age prevented Hetrick from being able to see the canyon in real life (VR Scout 2021). VR, however, granted him access to a version of the Grand Canyon which not only ‘felt real’, but was a memorable experience for him and his son (VR Scout 2021). When reflecting on his experience, Hetrick said, “I think that VR technology gives people from around the world shared experiences and hopefully a mutual appreciation of the beauty of the planet. As far as transporting people, it made it possible for me to visit the views and grandeur of the Grand Canyon. Given my physical limitations, this would not have been possible without a VR experience” (VR Scout 2021). Other people in the elderly community expressed similar sentiments. Tom Norris, a 70-year-old military retiree who experiences chronic pain, uses VR to experience activities like swimming with dolphins or walking through the wilderness (Aubrey 2019). He said that these experiences not only make him feel like he is fully immersed in a natural space, but help him to feel at peace and relaxed, which can mitigate his pain (Aubrey 2019). The feelings that Norris associates with these second-hand experiences can remain for several days after his encounter with VR natural spaces (Aubrey 2019). VR wilderness allows older adult populations to go to wilderness areas and natural spaces that may be inaccessible for a variety of reasons, and allows them to experience new places or activities that elicit feelings of awe and wonder similar to what one might experience in real wilderness.
For those in the disabled community, real wilderness can be inaccessible. Worries about entering natural spaces due to physical limitations are incredibly prevalent. Paul Martin commented on the fact that his crutches could cause him to fall on certain terrains, making these areas hazardous for him (Brooks 2021). Valerie Johnson must always remain aware of the weather and temperature in outdoor spaces, as these components of many nature-related experiences can trigger migraines, throw off her body’s temperature, and be physically painful (Brooks 2021). VR, however, removes dangerous terrain, weather, and temperature (Brooks 2021). It allows for people like Martin and Johnson to experience second-hand wilderness in a safe and controlled environment and grants them access to ideals and feelings about wilderness that are usually available only for people who can make their way into real wilderness spaces (Brooks 2021).
A Tale of Two Hikes
The first time that I hiked over the Silver Bridge and then into Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch at Grand Canyon National Park, I remember feeling my backpack weighing down on my shoulders and my hips and trying to match my companion’s speed as they moved ahead, appearing incredibly confident as the bridge swayed back and forth over the Colorado River. I remember a misstep as I tried to balance on the grates of the bridge and trying not to look down to the Colorado River rushing below my feet (Figure 1). And I remember listening to our nervous laughter as we crossed the halfway point of the bridge and sped towards solid ground. The next three times that I hiked over the Silver Bridge were much the same.
The fifth time that I hiked over the Silver Bridge, however, was distinctly different. My fifth time over the Silver Bridge was using an Oculus headset in the basement of the Weitz Center for Creativity at Carleton College (Figure 2). The water below me was at a standstill, the Colorado River captured and stilled so that I could wander across the Silver Bridge from where I was at in Northfield, Minnesota. If I wanted to, I could have quickly hopped down from the bridge and stood in the middle of the Colorado River. I was not surrounded by the people that I had grown close to on this trip, rather the humming of the pipes and chatting of the technology assistants were the sounds that accompanied me during my VR hike.
The view was similar. It was grand, gorgeous, and awe-inspiring. What was markedly different with the view during my VR hike of the Grand Canyon, however, was that everywhere you looked was Google’s copyright symbol claiming these images.
As I continued to hike over the Silver Bridge and into the Bright Angel campground, Google heavily restricted my access. The VR headset told me where I could move, and whether or not I could physically enter a space. The spaces that were inaccessible had not been mapped by Google and I was unable to visit them on the Google Earth VR app. For example, the campground that I had originally stayed at the first night during the real hiking trip was unavailable to me during my VR experience.
Even though I could access places that I had not dreamt of during my real foray into the Grand Canyon, it was impossible for me to get lost while using the VR headsets because Google had mapped out the exact paths that I could take. The programmers determined exactly how I was going to see the plateaus and trails, including the type of weather, the time of day, and the angles that I could see. During my time in the real Grand Canyon, getting lost would have been a bit easier. I was always conscious of where I was, how I had gotten there, and who was with me. In the virtual version of the Grand Canyon, I did not need to think about these things. I could jump from the Black Bridge to the Silver Bridge to Havasupai Garden and know that I would always be able to take off my headset and returned to the Weitz Center for Creativity in Minnesota in much the same condition that I had been before the hike, with the addition of some headset goggle marks.
My feet hurt throughout the entirety of my hike in real wilderness, and even after I had left the real Grand Canyon, they remained a little sore and very calloused. In the virtual hike through the Grand Canyon, nothing hurt, especially not my feet. I was, however, slightly nauseous due to my ability to zoom in and out of scenes and to fly over the Grand Canyon like a bird.
The final place that I travelled to during my VR hike was situated at the top of the Devil’s Corkscrew. In real life, I had made sure to turn around and glance down to the trails, thinking that it might be my last chance to look into the very bottom of the Grand Canyon. I had thought about the California Condor we had seen just an hour before and the chill of the creek that we had hiked through just before starting up the switchbacks. Then I had turned around and continued to Havasupai Garden with the rest of the group. VR gave me another chance to look out over the Devil’s Corkscrew and many other places that I remember fondly. The VR hike through the Grand Canyon made me smile because it reminded me of all the memories and emotions that I felt during my real hike through the Grand Canyon. VR gave me the chance not only to relive something that will impact me for the rest of my life, but to experience it in a new way and from a different point of view.
Those who love real wilderness immediately hesitate when a VR experience is mentioned as a possible alternative to an experience in the natural world. They push back against the idea that VR wilderness could be comparable to an experience in a natural setting. This hesitation is understandable because what could be less engaging than sitting (or standing) inside, sliding on a pair of VR goggles, and selecting a random wilderness location to enter? Real wilderness requires preparation. The natural world requires some discomfort and for those engaging with it to be physically present, challenging their bodies and ensuring that they are actively in this space. VR cannot require its users to physically challenge themselves, nor can it exclude those who cannot financially or temporally access wilderness spaces.
Finding these differences might lead us to continue analyzing which elements of real wilderness are preserved in VR wilderness, investigating whether VR is a suitable substitute for its natural counterpart. Thinking about VR wilderness as a direct challenge to real wilderness, however, is not productive. Trying to figure out whether or not VR wilderness can ever be considered wilderness will only result in challenging discussions and will limit how we think we can connect with wilderness. A comparison, therefore, is not the best way to think about how VR impacts our conceptualizations of wilderness.
VR’s experience-sharing capabilities have changed and will continue to fundamentally change how people conceptualize wilderness, and how they choose to interact with both real wilderness and VR wilderness. This technology allows for a more accessible wilderness and opens remote spaces to people who without this technology would not have been able to access these outdoor spaces. VR also, and perhaps more importantly, allows for those entering virtual natural worlds to experience emotions that are deeply intwined with how people experience wilderness. An experience in wilderness, even VR wilderness, can fundamentally and positively change a person or impart life-long memories that hold incredible value.
VR experiences have proven to be impactful. They arouse feelings of awe and joy and can inspire in people a connection to nature. At its core, VR wilderness shares wilderness and some of the cultural ideals that we associate with the natural world with a larger segment of the population. This is important. Wilderness experiences need not be reserved for the limited number of people that can physically, financially, and temporally access what tend to be remote, physically challenging, and potentially dangerous natural spaces. Though it will likely never be a perfect replica, VR wilderness allows for many people to experience a version of wilderness. These experiences can inspire more people to preserve wilderness spaces in perpetuity due to the connection that VR allows nearly anybody to have with our ideals about wilderness.
As more and more people continue to engage with virtual natural space, our conceptualizations of wilderness will allow for VR wilderness experience to be considered just as valuable as real wilderness experiences, but not as a replacement. This technology allows for a larger segment of the population to reflect on what it means to be in the wilderness, why wilderness and the associated experiences are important, and why natural spaces must be preserved in perpetuity for future generations.
I would like to thank George Vrtis (Carleton College) for his encouragement and advice throughout this project. Thank you for showing me the power of wilderness and for allowing me to explore the limits of our current conceptualizations of wilderness. I appreciate the time that you put into the American Wilderness Seminar and will never forget our hike into the Grand Canyon.
About the Authors
KEELY A. FISHER is a PhD Candidate at the Ohio State University; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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In this issue of IJW, we remember Dave Foreman as a father tree for wilderness. Carol Lee and Tanya Dreizin investigate peer-driven social pressures for behavior in rock climbers. Keely Fisher examines virtual reality and the impact of wilderness conceptualizations. Gracie Dunlap describes living along¬side the Yawanawá. And John Shultis uses creative expression and the arts to demonstrate the impact of wild places.
We all adapted to changes, some societal and many personal, over the past several years. Now comes the opportunity to reconnect and reengage in our passions for wilderness and wild nature.
The wilderness community and the global rewilding movement pay tribute to a founding father. Dave Foreman changed and expanded the way we do conservation in North America.