March 9, 2012 at 5:16 PM ET
No doubt you’re familiar with Street View, the Google Maps technology that lets you travel along city streets via your computer or smartphone screen.
Now, for those looking to get off the pavement, there’s Trail View, a new program that lets you “walk” the trails of three national parks without taking a step.
Created by granola bar company Nature Valley, a longtime parks supporter, the virtual experience covers more than 300 miles of trails in the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains and Yellowstone national parks. Pick a trail, hit Autoplay and the surrounding scene shifts as you move down the trail. Users can also pan 360 degrees at any point by clicking and dragging the cursor.
“They were really thinking outside the box,” said Russ Hornbeck of the National Parks Conservation Association, who jokingly likened the technology to the View-Master 3-D viewers that were popular in the 1960s. (Nature Valley has partnered with NPCA on several projects and recently donated more than $400,000 to the group as part of its “Preserve the Parks” initiative, but NPCA wasn’t involved with the Trail Views project.)
“One of the ways people used to get encouraged to go to the national parks was by looking at those tremendous vistas on their viewers,” he told msnbc.com. “We think this will really resonate with people.”
Not surprisingly, creating the program required a bit more effort than synching up a pair of stereoscopic images. To get the footage, a team of 10 to 12 people spent two weeks in each park, hiking the trails and capturing the local scenery with a Dodeca 2360, a backpack-mounted camera that stitches together simultaneous feeds from 11 multi-directional lenses.
“The production team did every single mile, sometimes doubling back to get a particular point of interest,” said Leslie Sims, executive creative director at McCann Erickson, who helped haul the necessary gear — hard drives, extra batteries, five liters of water per person — at the Grand Canyon.
“We’d leave our hotel before the sun came up and log as many miles as we could before dark,” she said. “The production team was pretty hard on us — no one wanted to be the weak link.”
The result is an impressive compendium of vistas, trail details and other park information. The program can be a little glitchy — load times can be slow and image resolution during Autoplay was fuzzy — but such missteps fade when you’re “standing” in front of Rainbow Falls in the Smokies or atop Yellowstone’s Avalanche Peak.
Of course, you’re not really anywhere close to the sites themselves, but the people behind Trail Views see it as a way to introduce people to the parks, especially digitally savvy younger people who often use technology as a way to preview real-world experiences.
“It’s like what we do with iTunes,” said Scott Baldwin, associate marketing director for Nature Valley. “We buy a song digitally and then we go to the concert.”
According to Baldwin, a similar philosophy informs Trail Views, with, not surprisingly, the added impetus of supporting the parks.
“We know that when people get out in the parks, it inspires great memories and, in turn, inspires them to help preserve them,” he told msnbc.com. “If that means starting virtually, that’s great.”
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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.