If you want to celebrate the 100th anniversary of America’s National Parks Service, there are definitely worse ways than with a virtual reality trip through Yosemite narrated by President Barack Obama.
Through the Ages is a roughly 10-minute video shot by virtual reality filmmakers Felix & Paul, in collaboration with the White House, Oculus, and National Geographic. The video was created earlier this summer, when the Obamas visited Yosemite National Park. It’s been teased since June, but it’s now available on Gear VR and Facebook’s 360-degree video platform, where it can be watched without a VR headset; an Oculus Rift version is coming soon. While it’s billed as the White House’s first VR experience, it’s following a simpler Google Expeditions educational tour of the building itself, as well as our own 360-degree video with first lady Michelle Obama.
Remote natural landscapes are attractive prospects for VR filmmakers. In fact, Google has put out its own national parks piece in honor of the anniversary. And Through the Ages hews to some of the standard tropes of flatscreen nature videos, like time-lapse video of Yosemite’s vistas. But the 3D, 360-degree environment lends a gravitas to the piece, letting the environment surround you; even mundane things like grass and water can become temporarily fascinating. Felix & Paul’s videos are generally shot from a sitting perspective, since that’s how people will generally be experiencing them. But in this case, it makes the film’s humans — particularly Obama — look larger than life. The whole thing, shot over the course of six days, feels fittingly epic for both a showcase of a national park and a plea to preserve the entire national parks system.
I got to see Through the Ages in a Gear VR, which won’t be everyone’s experience. "There's quite a gap" between the Facebook 360 version and its Gear VR or Rift one, says Paul Raphaël of Felix & Paul, and although Facebook is by far the biggest of these platforms, the piece was conceived for virtual reality. But with VR still relatively limited, most people who see the piece will probably be watching it on some kind of flat screen — which can add its own flavor to the experience. "I guess it's also a different state of experience. When I experience 360 content [outside VR], I tend to find it in a way more playful," says partner Félix Lajeunesse. "When I engage with it in VR, I find it to be generally more contemplative, meditative, and I sort of enter the experience."
While people sometimes talk about VR as "being there," this obviously isn’t a real substitute for visiting Yosemite. But it’s a reminder of how cool national parks can be, and how beautifully VR can capture them.