Inspiring a Love of Nature Through VR

Petra in Jordan
by Jason Johnson
Freelance writer and editor

From the sandstone dwellings of Petra to the sheer granite walls of Yosemite, computational photographer Greg Downing captures awe-inspiring places in VR.

Photographer Greg Downing thought renting a donkey would be a good way to travel up the narrow cliffs to the lost ruins of Petra. After all, it’s a steep climb to the archaeological park in Jordan, plus an additional 850 steps just to enter the Monastery.

Unfortunately, the donkey didn’t agree.

The creature bucked and brayed the whole way up the cliff, threatening to throw Downing off its back. To keep the donkey moving, a Bedouin child ran behind, striking the beast with a stick. Hopping from rock to rock, they approached the rose-red city, recently named one of the new seven wonders of the world.

two donkeys
Donkeys are a common form of transportation through the steep cliffs and narrow steps to reach Petra.

The ancient structures of Petra include thousands of little domiciles and tombs carved into the sandstone cliffs. Downing traveled there to capture images of the Treasury, an ornately carved monument. Adventure movie lovers may recognize it as the resting place of the Holy Grail in the film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

However, this was not a typical travel photography assignment. Downing takes photography to the extreme, capturing multiple images that he stitches together into virtual reality (VR) experiences that inspire viewers to protect the natural world.

“As an artist, I’ve always been interested in making photography three-dimensional,” said Downing, who has spent the past 20 years traveling  on assignment to far-flung destinations. His work has been displayed in the American Museum of Natural History, the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

His VR journeys have invited viewers to soar over the flying buttresses of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, descend into the San Andreas Fault in California and venture through Icelandic lava tubes with the singer Bjork.

By creating photographs that people can step inside, Downing educates and inspires awareness of real environmental issues. He wants audiences to see the world from new perspectives.

Using Superhero Tech for the Global Good

Downing, 45, gravitates toward projects that will make lasting impressions.

Similar to how Ansel Adams’ photographs of the Sierra Nevada mountains convinced President Roosevelt to found Kings Canyon National Park in 1940, Downing believes that today’s immersive technology should be used to benefit the environment.

“A lot of big social changes were due to photography,” said Downing. “I wanted to find a way to make an impact with visual effects.”

Greg Downing
Greg Downing travels the world to capture nature in VR.

He hasn’t always held this perspective. For several years, Downing worked in Hollywood doing special effects on blockbuster films like Spider-Man 3, I Am Legend and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. After building one too many virtual versions of New York City, he said he grew tired of watching some action hero blow up his work.

Together with Eric Hanson, another visual effects expert, he founded xRez Studio in 2006. They combined forces to work on projects with an environmental impact, using gigapixel panoramic photography, LIDAR-based digital terrain modeling and 3D computer rendering to help the U.S. National Park Service study the problem of rockfalls at Yosemite National Park.

More than 70 photographers joined together on the project, taking more than 10,000 images to create a detailed photographic panorama now used by park service search and rescue teams, as well as geologists to study rockfall in the valley. If printed, the 90,000-pixel wide panoramic image would be 50-feet long.

A continued call to the great outdoors drove Downing to capture spherical photos of Antelope Canyon in Arizona and record the New Mexico desert for Pull of the Moon, a collaborative art project created by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and Navajo artist Bert Benally.

“We were actually in a volcano together last summer,” said VR producer Peter Martin, who recently collaborated with Downing to capture the Smithsonian American Art Museum in VR for Intel.

“He is full of adventure and takes the challenge.”

Taking Photos that People Can Explore

These days, Downing is mainly focused on VR, infusing age-old photographic techniques with the newest technologies.

“Greg is a photo scientist,” said Rajeev Puran, a business development manager at Intel. “He takes still photographs of locations, whether with a camera or with drones, and turns them into 3D environments.”

If Downing is a scientist, then his science is photogrammetry: a technique first conceived by Leonardo da Vinci, which applies measurements to photos to create 3D images.

Not only does he take pictures of a landscape, but Downing also measures the distances between objects. Then using a computer, he diligently reconstructs everything, one-to-one.

Because they faithfully mimic reality, Downing’s VR creations are helpful in educating people on the importance of environmental issues. Just last month, Downing finished production on a documentary about Greenland’s melting glaciers for PBS.

From 360 Tourist to VR Traveler

Perhaps Downing’s sympathy for the planet originated from his fond first memories of backpacking across Europe. In his 20s, he set off to shoot 360-degree panoramas of Roman ruins, carousing on hostel rooftops during the warm evenings.

He developed a fondness for shooting tiny medieval French villages in the Alps. His favorite was Bussana Vecchia, which had been nearly destroyed in a major earthquake a century earlier. The roof of the village church had collapsed, so that the fresco walls opened to the sky.

For Downing, these youthful excursions were the beginning of his fascination with the world and now he wants to share those experiences with the public through the medium of VR.

“The more I learn about the special places in the world, the more incredible it all seems,” he said.

With VR technology, almost everyone can participate in his incredible adventures.


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