New Version and Upgrade! Parks Explorer VR - Yosemite National Park

Today we updated Parks Explorer VR - Yosemite National Park, based on the feedback we have received.  Parks Explorer VR - Yosemite National Park is an interactive and visual national park guide for you to experience and explore Yosemite National Park in immersive 3D and VR. You can now traverse the valleys, scale the peaks, climb the mountains, and explore the beauty that Yosemite is famous for, all from your iPhone or iPad.

The key upgrades in this new version are:

  • Improved visuals and graphics quality
  • Improved touring and flying capability
  • Tours now include narrated descriptions
  • Improved VR performance with Cardboard

The key features:

  • Freedom to flyover the park and explore on your own
  • Detailed information for 48 hikes and the top sights in the park
  • Guided Flyover tours of all detailed hikes, narrated in audio with captions
  • Virtual Reality support for Cardboard for flyover touring, hiking database, teleporting to top sites or to hike start and destination
  • Consistent features and functionality in both immersive 3D and mobile VR modes
  • Landmark identifier with virtualized augmented reality

An integral part of the upgrade is a move to extremely detailed and beautiful satellite imaged terrains from MapboxMapbox is a mapping platform that helps enable the design and creation of fantastic custom maps, and for us, high-resolution satellite imagery. The Mapbox functionality is cloud based with a global infrastructure. 

The other key inclusion in this upgrade is the narrated tours for all the hikes. The audio and captioned narrations provide a description of the hike as you fly through the tours, creating a greater audio and visual virtual outdoor experience. We look to extend this capability in the future so feedback here is very welcome. 

So please go try the new version out and let us know what you think!

New Release - Squaw Valley Ski and Snowboard

We just released for the winter, Parks Explorer VR - Squaw Valley Ski and Snowboard on iTunes for the iPhone and iPad. We are now taking you to a whole new level on how you explore and discover outdoor adventures.

In addition to being able to explore and experience a virtual Squaw Valley with all its mountains, runs, lifts, etc, we are introducing 4 new exciting capabilities:

  1. Social VR: Explore and experience a shared virtual world with your friends. You can simply just move around the ski park together, share the trails you create, and challenge your friends to try them too) 
  2. Create and Share your own trails/runs: Create your own trail/runs as you explore around either by recording tracks in the virtual world, or by logging your actual GPS in the real world. This blending the real and virtual worlds is pretty exciting, go experience the ski park and then bring it home with you!
  3. Race down the trails: Have some fun racing through either the provided trails/runs or the trails/runs you or your friends create. Race either against the clock or head to head against each other over the network.
  4. Simplified 3D/VR Operation: We have simplified and streamlined the Immersive 3D and Virtual Reality modes, now with identical menu systems and operations. The only differences now is “touch” control in Immersive 3D mode and “gaze” control in Virtual Reality mode. 

We are seeing tremendous growth for the Parks Explorer VR series, and are seeing huge VR use/growth both in our own analytics and across the industry. The majority of our users are experiencing and exploring in VR and we are working to continue to improve and make the best VR experience.

Forecasts wise, the numbers are looking better and better. In January 2016 we read that "SuperData expects far cheaper “light mobile VR” alternatives such as Google Cardboard could sell over 27 million units.” Last month, November 2016, we then read that Superdata expected 84 million units to be sold in 2016. Backing that up with another data point, in May 2016, "Google revealed that its Cardboard application has been installed over 50 million times, up from 25 million installs in January 2016."

And of course, there are "lots of good Cardboard solutions for iPhone" to help drive this. As on  a side note, there must have been one huge Christmas rush on Cardboard, as with a week before the Christmas holiday, we were unable to find last minute Cardboard units to be delivered in time for gifts, wow, so now looking for what comes from CES 2017 in Las Vegas in January.

We are very excited by the feedback and growth of the Parks Explorer VR series. Keep the comments and suggestions coming, and stay tuned for the next wave of products.

Immersed in the Yosemite High Sierra

by Bill Swift

That was a great backpacking to the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite. We all had a great time, and boy oh boy did all that training pay off. Racking up all those miles on the hiking boots, breaking them in and the feet in and the body in and the mind in, really paid off. The scenery was fantastic. We got some great pictures, some great 360 videos, and we caught some great fish, so all in all a fantastic time.

Looking towards the valleys to take us to Merced Lake High Sierra Camp

Looking towards the valleys to take us to Merced Lake High Sierra Camp

Check out the videos below for the Parks Explorer VR - Yosemite National Park version of the travel. We started at west end of Tenaya Lake, hiked up to Sunrise Lakes High Sierra Camp for the first night, then off to Merced High Sierra Camp for the next to nights, then to Vogelsang High Sierra Camp for the last night, and then hiked out to Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. 

For further immersive enjoyment, click on the photos below to open 360 degree photos from some of the exciting parts of the trip. First photo is from a lunch spot at the intersection of trails to Tenaya Lake, Clouds Rest, and Sunrise Lakes. Great views west towards Half Dome. Second is at Merced Lake High Sierra Camp. We were on a ranger guided hike, so yes, every night was lots of stories and better yet, singing!. Third is from Sunrise Lakes High Sierra Camp, looking out over Long Meadow towards Columbia Finger.

Now click on the following photos to see the next set of 360 degree photos, one from the middle of Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, then another from Fletcher Lake looking at Fletcher Peak just outside Vogelsang High Sierra Camp. Click on the last photo, and you will see an "360 degree Action Video" on the trail from Sunrise High Sierra Camp to Merced Lake High Sierra Camp.

We hope you enjoy these, and heads up, as yes, after we got back , we started working on Olympic National Park. Will update the latest on this next. As always, keep the feedback and comments coming so we can continue to tailor Parks Explorer VR to what you are looking for.

Ready to Go! - Yosemite High Sierra Camp Backpacking Trip

By Bill Swift

This is the week we start our backpacking trip to Yosemite and stay at the High Sierra Camps. The two big challenges we have been working through the last two weeks are continuing to get in backpacking condition, and to help with that, trying to minimize the weight we carry. To get in condition, we have been doing a number of hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), exploring both Meadow Mountain Lake and Little Needle Lake on different days. What makes these hikes exciting is after you get off the Squaw Valley tram at 8200 feet, you climb up to the Watson Monument and then down to the PCT at about 2 miles. Meadow Mountain Lake is about 2 miles north on the PCT and Little Needle Lake is about 2 miles south on the PCT, both traveling through spectacular scenery.

On top of that, these hikes are accessible only on what both Jeffrey Schaffer in his Tahoe Sierra and Pacific Crest Trail books say, and @IngaAksamit notes in her Little Needle Lake Adventure call "use trails". Ha! This means old remnant trails or no trail, or trail for some part and then no trail for a while. The end result though is a good adrenaline rush in the search, appreciation for the Garmin eTrek GPS, and then access to some very lightly travelled areas that are just stunning off the PCT. Really nice to be completely immersed in nature. Check out the images above that show Meadow Mountain Lake and then an immersive 360 image from Little Needle Lake.

Fishing and Electronics Equipment

The weight challenge we have is that, besides our clothes, all the other cool stuff we want to bring actually weighs something and takes battery power. The Ricoh Theta S 360 Camera is controlled over local Wi-Fi with the iPhone and the Ricoh battery pretty much goes very low after 30 minutes of video. We also want to use our iPhones as cameras, so for a 5 day trip, we are bringing along a 15.2 oz Anker 26800mAH external battery that should be able to re-charge an iPhone 10 times. We added 0.25 inch screw/blots to a cardboard mailing tube we have as a lightweight fly rod tube, so now we bring a lightweight small tripod and use this “stick” instead of bringing our handy Targus 42in Travel Tripod (at 1 lb) and save lots of weight. The image above shows the fishing equipment (2 pounds total) and electronics (2 pounds total) we are bringing. 

  • Ricoh Theta S 360 video camera
  • iPhone(s)
  • Anker 26800mAH external battery
  • Fitbit Pulse tracks distance/time on wrist
  • Garmin eTrek 30 GPS 
  • Mini Tripod
  • 5wt Fly Fishing Rod + modified Tube with 0.25 inch mounts tripod/camera mounts
  • Fly Fishing Reels (floating line for creek/rivers, sink tip line for lakes)
  • Tenkara Fly Fishing Rod
  • Fly box, Leaders, Tippet, Floatant, Snippers, Licenses

All these items, of course, are “luxuries” to bring along. With no tents or sleeping bags or 5 days of food, even with all this stuff, we still will have backpacks that weigh about 20 pounds including water. So sure, lets enjoy some fishing and some immersive imaging capture. And if you were wondering, no, we are not bringing Google Cardboards as you probably know by now, the VR apps use lots of power! Off we go, so check back for the details!

Jackpot! Yosemite High Sierra Camp Lottery

By Bill Swift

One of the most popular adventures in Yosemite National Park is to explore the Yosemite high country and be able to stay at the Yosemite High Sierra Camps. These 5 back country camps are spaced 6 to 10 miles apart and provide tent cabins, bunks, blankets, breakfast, box lunch for the day, and dinner. This means you can hike the high country with a much lighter backpack, carrying basically just your clothes, water, and other personal gear. The camps are open roughly late June through early September which makes for a very tight season.

Map of Yosemite High Sierra Camps

Such a great outdoor adventure is as you can expect, is extremely popular, so there is a lottery process to manage the demand. Applications can be submitted in the fall for the following summer. Of course, we applied and were super excited when April rolled around to see if we were lucky enough to get a spot. Well, we didn’t receive any response, so emailed back asking for our status. That night the phone rang. Apparently someone had just cancelled and there was an opening for a five day ranger guided hike in mid August. Of course we took the spot! So here we are in early August and in two weeks we head to Yosemite!

It all starts off with a night at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, which is a tent cabin based lodge at 8600 feet where people get acclimated to the high elevation. Just staying there is a wonderful experience in itself as the location is spectacular, and it is fun to share stories with the other hikers at group breakfast and dinners. Our itinerary is as follow:

  • Day 1 : hike to Sunrise High Sierra Camp (8 miles 1200 foot elevation gain).
  • Day 2 : hike to Merced Lake High Sierra Camp (10 miles 2200 feet down)
  • Day 3: rest up with extra night at Merced Lake High Sierra Camp
  • Day 4: hike to Vogelsang High Sierra Camp (8 miles 3000 foot elevation gain).
  • Day 5: we walk back to Tuolumne Meadows Lodge (7 miles 1500 feet down) and take a shower!

Talk about exciting, very exciting!  Every time I preview that experience in Parks Explore VR - Yosemite National Park, I get even more excited. Although as exciting as it looks, the VR flyovers really show where some parts of the adventure are going to be quite a challenge. I have also been exploring what to do on that “extra day” at Merced Lake. 

We have been training pretty hard this summer to prepare for this upcoming experience. Also readying our pack list as we need to allocate some extra weight for our 360 degree video camera and battery pack to try to capture some of the natural beauty that awaits us on this adventure. Click the pictures below to check out the 360 video and 360 photo from a couple of our recent workout hikes, first to Ellis Peak and second to Granite Chief, both peaks on the western side of Lake Tahoe. 

Check back soon as we plan to make additional posts here about this exciting trip to Yosemite.

Parks Explorer VR - Version 1.1 Released

By Bill Swift

We just released version 1.1 of the Parks Explorer apps for Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Canyon National Parks. We have taken all the customer feedback and all the customer use statistics and made exciting updates in a number of key areas:

  • enhanced graphics in both immersive 3D and VR modes
  • simplified user interface to improve ease of use, especially in VR mode
  • more robust VR functionality and menu operation to make navigation easy to top places and hiking trail start and destinations
  • better VR performance for Cardboard 

New in version 1.1 are the the new VR “gaze based” menu systems. With mobile, fingers and touch control the navigation mechanism, but with VR we are using “gaze” to control the navigation. With “gaze”, users select a button when they look at it for a short period of time. This easy and intuitive VR based selection mechanism allows highly visual menus to be used to select teleporting to top sights, jump to hiking trails menu, or selecting to fly around the park on your own.

The gaze based hiking menu allows you to select hike details for different sections of the park and then teleport to the hike start or destination. From there you can fly on your own, or just look around, and in similar fashion choose to teleport your next destination. This makes the VR mode functionality match the immersive 3D mode functionality.

The graphics and performance enhancements are really exciting as one of the challenges with VR is creating comfortable VR experiences. The main challenge here is when there is a difference between what the body expects to feel in a certain circumstance and what the eyes are seeing. Lags in graphics performance, lags between head movement and graphics, all contribute to user comfort level with VR. Optimizing performance, especially in mobile VR mode where the best results come from achieving the 60 frames per second maximum rate on the iPhone, is absolutely key to creating comfortable VR experiences. With the latest updates, we continue to optimize the user experience to enable more comfortable and longer sessions.

We hope you enjoy the updated versions. Work continues on new projects so stay connected by visiting our web site and new social media sites regularly. Please continue sending us your comments and feedback. Happy outdoor adventuring!

Yosemite and Crater Lake 360 Video

By Bill Swift

What a fast four weeks! We launched our initial Yosemite and Grand Canyon titles in late May, and then the Rocky Mountain title two weeks ago and have received great feedback. Thank you all, keep it coming!.

We also had quite a bit of travel, visiting Yosemite the first week in June and then Crater Lake NP and Lassen NP a couple weeks ago “on the way” to a University of Oregon graduation event. The water falls were spectacular and on full display in Yosemite, and both Crater Lake and Lassen still had substantial snow at higher elevations.

What made those park visits so exciting was I picked up a Ricoh Theta S camera at the Augmented World Expo 2016. This camera has two lens which allows you to shoot 360 degree photographs and video, enabling a myriad of full immersion experiences.

Click on the Yosemite Vernal Falls image below for a short 10 second 360 degree video of Mist Trail just below Vernal Falls, as we are just getting soaked from the mist from the falls. Click on the Crater Lake Image for a 360 photo overlooking Crater Lake where you can pretty much look straight down!

These 360 video and photos do a great job capturing the feeling of being there. The ability to share and view the 360 photos and videos is growing with both YouTube and Facebook now supporting this new technology. 

The Ricoh Theta S is the first consumer level 360 camera available and what is exciting is a number of new 360 video products will be coming available soon such as the Vuze and Samsung Gear 360.  There are also rigs and software what will combine a number of GoPro cameras for even better image quality, such as GoPro Omni to be available soon, and 360 Heros available now, and at a bare minimum the mobile phone panorama shots can get you started. 

These immersive 360 camera and immersive VR technologies are going to create whole new and exciting content experiences in the upcoming years. 

Lastly, we have just launched an external beta test program for a new VR based technology, so if you are interested in checking it out, we would love you to join below.

Immerse Yourself in Parks Explorer

By Scott Seiden

My engineer friend Bill Swift is at it again making innovative technology. This time around he’s applying his talent to a life-long passion for the great outdoors by creating a completely new way to explore and discover our national park treasures. 

You see, Bill has been an avid park explorer from his college days--when after graduation he travelled across the country visiting and backpacking the parks—to his family’s recent summers--when his then 11-year old son wanted to climb to the top of Yosemite Falls, but just before they departed for the trip, broke his arm. So, during the family vacation the very next year they conquered that hike and for good measure they climbed to the top of Half Dome the following day. In his new technology endeavor, Bill decided to dedicate his engineering efforts to make national park visits better for everyone using the advancements in mobile media content to completely reshape the outdoor vacation experience.

Bill received inspiration to start his new venture, High Mountain Data, while gazing upon the majestic mountains across Lake Tahoe, always trying to figure out exactly what peaks he was admiring. If only he had some quick and easy way to find out? He desired something more than guide books and maps, and found that most of the digital park guides available were unsatisfying in terms of their visual impact and use models. In a perfect world, Bill thought that park guides should leverage the latest wave of mobile technologies where 3D graphics and animation, use of intelligence, and the intersection of Virtual Reality put the most popular outdoor places at your fingertips. No more flipping through text pages or struggling with ill-conceived interfaces to find what he wanted.

Now, summer is nearly upon us, and so too is family vacation time once again. If you’re thinking about visiting a National Park this summer, or anytime for that matter, you owe it to yourself to check out High Mountain Data’s Parks Explorer suite of visually immersive mobile applications on your iPhone or iPad. What’s so special about these mobile-first solutions is that they integrate several valuable functions into one easy-to-use experience on your chosen device. The “Plan and Go” drive, hike, maps, explore user interface is simple to navigate and immediately rewarding, especially for those of us middle-aged folks who would love to visit the parks as much as we can.

High Mountain Data’s Parks Explorer suite has captured the essentials of park travel and tour planning. You get immediate gratification from the automatic road and trail flyovers, just click the name of the road or trail, push go, and you can then see what that drive or hike would be like. Put on your Google cardboard for a 3D VR experience of flying over of the park terrain. You will get to know exactly where all the major sites are located so you get the lay of the land very fast. When you have more than a few minutes to spend, you can check out the suggested tour itineraries that you can explore or create your own custom tour, view it, save it, show it to the family to get their approval, etc. 

The utility doesn’t stop at exploring and planning. Once you arrive at the park, use the navigation and GPS capabilities as a quick reference guide to chart your course, and the 360 degree viewing mode helps you know exactly what you are seeing around you, no network required. Best of all, High Mountain Data is offering the Parks Explorer suite for free on a limited time basis. So, click on over to the Apple Store and download Yosemite or Grand Canyon and check it out. Come back frequently as High Mountain Data plans to roll out many more parks over the coming months.