How to Create Outdoorists and Influence People with Virtual Reality

What if your brand had the power to increase outdoor engagement by 13 percent? It’s not by investing in endless streams of videos and content that you hope go viral. It’s by engaging an underserved population in the outdoor space.

By Lindsay Warner July 25, 2016

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in eight American adults lives with a mobility limitation. That means nearly 13 percent of our adult population have  extreme difficulty with walking and/or climbing stairs. Since the outdoor industry skews heavily toward physical activity, people with limited mobility have not enjoyed the rewards of being a “target” demographic.

A rapidly-evolving technology has shown  to begin – or enhance – a concerted effort to include disabled people in the outdoor experience. That technology is virtual reality (VR), and it’s much more advanced and accessible than you may think. It has shown to motivate users to get off of the couch and venture into the outdoors.

What is Virtual Reality?

“Virtual reality is the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment,” explains Dr. Brian Jackson in an article for Marxent Labs, a VR software provider. Rudimentary VR has been around since the late 1950s. Over the decades, a large volume of academic study has been dedicated not only to the technology, but also to the positive psychological benefits of experiencing VR.

The goal of VR is to immerse the user on a deeper level than simply watching an experience in 2D as well as stimulate more senses: sight, sound, touch and smell.

Most VR employs some sort of headwear to limit outside stimuli. These range from simple cardboard viewfinders, like Google Cardboard, to sophisticated helmets that block external audio, visual and olfactory input.

There are two general versions of the technology: virtual and augmented reality (AR). With VR, the entire environment is simulated and the user guides him- or herself through the experience while immersed in computer-generated 360-degree views. With augmented reality (AR) software, computer-generated images are “placed” over images of the real world.

VR as a Non-Discriminate “Outdoor” Experience

Aside from its gaming and promotional capabilities, the promise of VR is in its potential for inclusivity. For anyone, whatever the reason may be, who may not otherwise have the opportunity to venture into the outdoors in person, VR provides a venue to get a taste of that experience. For some users, this may provide a spark of inspiration to follow through in-person. For others, it may be simply a fun diversion.

VR might also provide an experience that people physically could not have otherwise. As reported by NPR, in an article titled, “Affordable Virtual Reality Opens New Worlds for People With Disabilities,” a man with muscular dystrophy used VR to surf. Already a lay-down surfer, the man was giddy with the VR experience of stand-up surfing – something he physically cannot do. “It allowed me to experience something I thought I could never experience.”

Outdoor brands are paying attention. Brands and retailers speak endlessly of making emotional connections with consumers, and there are a few more direct ways to build them than sharing an experience. VR is a non-discriminate outdoor experience to share with anyone whose interest is piqued.

The Psychological Effects of VR

As far back as 1995, research supported the notion that “virtual reality use by people with disabilities shows that is a tool, not a game.” (Weikle, 1995). VR has been shown to lower anxiety and depressive symptoms, while improving self-esteem and life satisfaction. (Gilbert et al., 2013). Today, leading VR research focuses on exposure therapy, VR for PTSD and overcoming fears and Thaddressing challenges. These are all in line with many of the motivators people use to get outside.

VR allows all users, and specifically disabled users in the context of many studies, to have control of their bodies, their surroundings and their interactions in a generally rewarding and engaging way. (Alm et al, 1998).

Brands Leading the Way

All of the brands interviewed  expressed that their VR experiences were created for everyone; they were inclusive of, though not specifically or solely intended, for people with disabilities. Each of the brands celebrated the opportunity to provide an experience that would inspire – regardless of the user’s mobility.


Photo Courtesy of Moosejaw

Moosejaw Mountaineering introduced a virtual reality app, called , “The best thing we’ve ever done.” Dan Pingree, vice president of marketing at Moosejaw summarized the app’s wide appeal, “Our intended audience is anybody interested in an outdoor experience, whether actual or virtual. This app puts you front and center in some pretty intense outdoor activities without having to be there in person – for whatever .”

The North Face was one of the first outdoor brands to incorporate VR in its brand experience. “At The North Face, we’re always looking for new and innovative ways to share our stories, as well as inspire our customers’ interest in getting outdoors,” said Cal Bouchard, vice president of digital commerce and experience at The North Face. “It’s less about selling product and more about offering viewers the opportunity to experience some of the world’s most beautiful places, including Moab, Yosemite and Nepal.”

#project360 Everest team after the successfull ascent on May 19, 2016 From left to right: Lakpa Sherpa, Ang Kaji Sherpa, Pemba Rinji Sherpa and Kusang Sherpa Courtesy of Mammut

#project360 Everest team after the successfull ascent on May 19, 2016. From left to right: Lakpa Sherpa, Ang Kaji Sherpa, Pemba Rinji Sherpa and Kusang Sherpa. Photo Courtesy of Mammut

Mammut’s VR experience, Project 360, was also created to engage a wide audience in the outdoor activity. “Our goal is to create an emotional connection between people and iconic mountains, and perhaps to inspire some [people] to experience these places, or other similar places, for themselves,” said Dave Furman, Hardgoods Category Manager for Mammut. Even though Project 360 was created for everyone, Furman notes that adaptive athletes are certainly a group Mammut supports and wants to reach. For the brand’s 150th anniversary, Mammut collaborated with Paradox Sports, and Furman had the to climb with athletes whose capacity to inspire was defined by their skill, not by their disability. For Mammut, inspiration is the unifier.

The Value to an Outdoor Brand

Because we’re in the beginning stages of using VR as a sophisticated, immersive marketing tool, there isn’t a measurable correlation yet between VR engagement and sales. What research and anecdotal evidence is demonstrating, though, is that VR allows people with and without disabilities to experience adventures in a very real way. Outdoor brands have the opportunity to welcome an underserved population and do exactly what we say is our goal: to help more people enjoy the outdoors in a way that fits their lives and needs.

Scientific Resources:

Alm, N., Arnott, J. L., Murray, I. R., & Buchanan, I. (1998, Oct). Virtual reality for putting people with disabilities in control. Systems, Man, and Cybernetics, 2, 1174-1179.

Gilbert, R., Murphy, N., Krueger, A., Ludwig, A., & Effron, T. (2013). Psychological Benefits of Participating in 3D Virtual Worlds for Individuals with Real World Disabilities. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 60(3), 208-224.

Weikle, B. (1995). Riding the perfect wave: Putting virtual reality to work with disabilities. (No link available)