Teleport yourself across the planet with BRINK Traveler from BRINK XR, a first-of-its-kind virtual travel experience app that lets you explore breathtaking real-world locations in fully volumetric 3D environments created from meticulously scanned photogrammetry and LiDAR technology. Visit over a dozen gorgeous locations around the world with BRINK Traveler, out now on the Oculus Quest and Rift Platforms, as well as Steam for $9.99 USD. And if you buy it on Quest, you get a free Oculus Home environment featuring Horseshoe Bend!
There are other travel apps out there that use existing imagery from satellite footage and 360° photos or videos, but you don’t feel like you’re really there. Instead of standing and looking at images or videos in a dome, BRINK Traveler takes things a step further. It’s the difference between looking at a photo album and feeling like you’re standing in a National Park for yourself.
“We're a small team that loves the great outdoors and have been trying for years to share that passion through photography, timelapses, and 360° photos,” says Akin Bilgic, founder of BRINK XR. “With BRINK Traveler, it finally feels like we've found something that does justice to the scale and feeling of being in these amazing places—something no other medium has been able to really capture before now.”
By leveraging cutting-edge 3D scanning technology, it feels like you’re actually there, complete with immersive 6DOF tracking and a virtual travel guide who narrates the locations as you explore. The team at BRINK XR included three “collectible” points of interest at each location to encourage exploration, as well as a day/night mode to shift the time of day in real time. You can even take your own virtual photos and videos to save and share on social media like you would on a real vacation.
Across 12 different locations, there are 18 spots to visit featuring incredible natural landscapes, such as:
To learn more about how the team at BRINK XR brought the real world into the virtual dimension with BRINK Traveler, we spoke with co-founders Akin Bilgic, Brandon Riza, and Florian Bernard.
The selection of locales is quite diverse. How did you decide which locations and environments to include?
Brandon Riza (Photogrammetry / Pipeline TD): Our goal is to capture natural locations with a variety of terrains, colors, and experiences; rugged mountaintops, harsh deserts, thundering waterfalls, different skies and cloudscapes, and new things for curious people to learn about. We also wanted a mix of famous locations that many people can relate to, and some not as well known, but equally-stunning places. This is a trend we plan on continuing with future content releases.
Do you have a favorite location?
Akin Bilgic (Photogrammetry / Production): Delicate Arch is one of my favorites because it’s such an iconic spot that features so much character and depth. Anyone who visits this place is always shocked by how much larger the arch is from their expectations based on photos. The panoramic view is really special, from the snow-covered La Sal Mountains in the distance, to the rest of Arches National Park on full display. Being able to experience this place all to yourself without any tourists - aside from two ravens to keep you company - feels really special to me.
Florian Bernard (Engineering / UX Design): Antelope Canyon is one of my favorites. There’s so many details on which to dwell. I often find myself touching the walls on both sides while stepping through this majestic place. Switching to night time by pressing a button on my watch, and staring at the night sky through these narrow galleries feels magical. I don’t think I will ever be able to do this in real life! Haifoss, Iceland is also one of my favorites. The deep sound of its immense waterfalls still gives me goosebumps.
BR: I like standing on top of Mount Morrison the most. It's such a bizarre place with gorgeous views of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains in every direction. Hearing the thunder in the distance and inspecting rocks and fulgurites in VR adds a level of immersion that triggers memories of the last time I stood there in real life, without the inherent hazards that come along with getting to the top of the actual mountain.
Will new locations be added after launch?
FB: Yes! Currently, the experience offers 18 places to see across 12 locations, mostly in the US. We are already working on adding more places to visit for free by the end of 2021. Then, with international travel restrictions hopefully being lifted soon, we’ll continue capturing and processing more diverse locations. We already have a long list of wonderful places we'd like to share including more National Parks, towering mountain tops, and hidden backcountry vistas. Our long term goal is to build a robust library of amazing places to make the wonders of the world accessible to everyone.
We‘re also working on improving the app itself by adding more features: the first of which will be multiplayer. This will allow our users to gather with friends and family or random people in these places - just like when traveling in real life! We’ll also improve the Points of Interest system making it more dynamic and interactive, with location specific animations and sound. And we can't wait to start working on more environmental effects like rain, dust storms, aurora borealis and fireflies!
On the technical side, what makes realistic volumetric photogrammetry environments so hard to do? They seem to be quite rare for VR content still.
BR: Many technical challenges exist between the initial idea of featuring a place and seeing it in a VR headset. Location logistics, travel and approach, the capture and processing of high-end photogrammetry in dynamic natural environments; all are daunting tasks in and of themselves. Once all this data is collected, the next phase of problem solving is optimizing it enough to run on current VR and AR mobile hardware. Our asset pipeline has evolved over time into a procedural and efficient workflow allowing for the rapid conversion of large amounts of raw data into highly optimized 3D models that can run on standalone devices like the Oculus Quest. The process of creating volumetric photogrammetry environments is fraught with pitfalls and technical hurdles. We've developed a methodology that addresses these issues and streamlines that process.
FB: But the challenge doesn’t end with engine ready 3D models! We also needed to later publish them in an efficient way. At the dawn of the project, our goal was to create an experience that feels smooth, with new content being added regularly. We knew it would be necessary to package each location separately from the app. First because it allows for an uninterrupted experience: users can keep exploring a location while downloading others, and second because it improves replayability by keeping download times as low as possible when an app update or new locations become available.
That design choice was key to achieve an experience that can run on both VR headsets and AR phones and tablets. Both versions of our app share the same highly-optimized content, and this allowed us to release BRINK Traveler on Oculus, Steam, Google Play and AppStore simultaneously.
Additionally, we invest a large portion of our development time breathing life into our static scenes by adding animated details like birds, flies, plants, water, as well as high quality audio sources like wind or distant thunderstorms. Many of these details are based on field observations, notes and research. As Brandon once said: "The sum total of all the small things is what suggests reality". I think the difficulty of recreating believable virtual environments resides in these many carefully crafted details.
What are some of the ways you envision virtual tourism expanding in the coming years?
AB: If this past year of Covid-19 travel restrictions has taught us anything, it’s that travel is an incredibly important part of so many people’s lives. Travel is what connects us to other places and cultures, and broadens our understanding and appreciation of the world around us. But travel can also be incredibly difficult and costly—which can make it inaccessible to many.
Our goal is to make the world's amazing places more accessible through virtual travel experiences. We aim to give people who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to visit these places a chance to feel like they’ve experienced it in person. We see virtual travel as a tool to help lower the barrier of entry for those who don’t have the time, money, or health to travel freely. While it’s no substitute for the real thing, we believe it can be a tool to build connection and empathy for these amazing places—to protect and ensure them for future generations.
Can you talk about some of the most exciting use cases for this technology in other sectors beyond consumer VR? What about education or healthcare?
AB: The use cases for virtual travel experiences beyond entertainment and tourism are really exciting and profound.
For education, the classroom of the future needs a field-trip of the future. Imagine teaching kids about the Colorado River while the whole class can feel like they’re standing next to it! There’s an immediacy to that kind of learning experience that really can't be replicated any other way. We see virtual travel becoming a valuable tool to educate young minds in a social and cost-effective manner.
For healthcare, virtual travel can provide a much needed escape for people confined to hospital rooms, people with disabilities, and the elderly. During demos of BRINK Traveler, we've seen people moved to tears from finally feeling like they were standing in a place they had always wanted to see, but didn’t have the ability to anymore.
We also see virtual travel experiences as a vital tool in preserving the delicate places of the world for future generations. Documenting and sharing these places threatened by climate change and human interference can be used to build empathy and awareness to keep these special places protected.
What was the most surprising thing you learned during the creation of BRINK Traveler?
BR: I found it amazing to watch how immersed people can get into a location, to a degree that some refused to step over cliffs for fear of falling. We demoed a very early version of our content at the VRLA event in 2018, and one person standing in Horseshoe Bend asked what would happen if he stepped over the cliff. We asked him to try it and find out. And he couldn't do it. I was blown away by that and it helped me realize how powerful and convincing this technology can be.
FB: I can only agree with Brandon! For me, the most surprising thing was our 3 years of successful remote collaboration. Akin and Brandon are in San Francisco and Los Angeles while I’m based in Bordeaux, France. At first, and considering the scope of the project, I was skeptical about operating as a remote studio with a 9 hour time difference. But along the way we used and mastered many collaboration tools that helped us stay organized and efficient.
If you could have a consumer take away one message or theme after trying BRINK Traveler, what would it be?
AB: Our world is filled with amazing places to see and explore - and we believe everyone should have the opportunity to experience them first-hand. Our passion for travel and the great outdoors is the guiding light of our work on BRINK Traveler. We strive to recreate the connection we have to the incredible natural places we love being in, and enable anyone to have their own connection to these wonderful locations.
Hearing about the memories and emotions that come rushing back when people visit these places in VR is the most rewarding part of this experience for us. Some people excitedly tell us about the times they’ve stood at some of these spots before. Others fondly recall family trips to national parks they would take when they were children, and how much they missed those simpler times in their life. Many others couldn’t believe some of these places actually exist out there!
There’s something incredibly powerful and personal about travel and nature that is universally yearned for and appreciated. VR is a powerful medium to evoke these feelings, and every choice we’ve made in the development of this app has been an effort to stir those memories and emotions.
There’s still so much of the world to experience, and we’re so excited to have everyone join us on this journey.
Your virtual tourist trip around the world starts now with BRINK Traveler, available for $9.99 USD on the Quest and Rift Platforms, as well as Steam. You can also check out the free mobile AR version of the app on iOS and Android-based phones and tablets for an experience similar to peering through a window to another world.